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Ig Nobel awards go microbial

October 17, 2010

This post was team co-written by Dipti and Heather

Dipti and Heather dressed like microbes, handing out plush giant microbe at this year's Ig Nobel Awards

The well-renowned Nobel Prize speaks for its own worth. Scientists, activists, economists, politicians and others who have made an exceptional mark in their respective fields are bestowed this great and rare honor.
What happens to the quirkier researchers though? What honor can one hope to receive in recognition for making bras that can act as emergency gas masks, proving that a digital rectal massage can cure long term hiccups, studying the intricacies of bat fellatio or showing how magnets can be used to levitate frogs?. They win the equally quirky Ig Nobel Prize – the lesser known, far more entertaining cousin. This prize is awarded for “achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think”.

Each year the Ig Nobel awards are given out in Harvard’s Sanders Theater honoring the most outstanding “Improbable Research” of the year in various categories. For example this year’s Ig Nobel Peace Prize this year was given to Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston of Keele University, UK, for confirming the widely held belief that swearing actually relieves pain, while the engineering prize was awarded to Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse and Agnes Rocha-Gosselin of the Zoological Society of London, UK, and Diane Gendron of Instituto Politecnico Nacional, Baja California Sur, Mexico, for perfecting a method to collect whale snot, using a remote-control helicopter.

Actual Nobel Laureates hand out these awards and quite a show is put on about the whole thing. There is music, drama, absurd costumes, audience participation, science demonstrations, and it all makes for a very entertaining show.
Each year a theme is chosen that comes up repeatedly throughout the night. Evelyn Evelyn – a band starring conjoint twins, of which one is Amanda Palmer – kickstarted the award ceremony with an aptly titled song called Bacteria Bacteria to announce this microbial years theme – bacteria! Two of the contributors to this blog were in attendance and even got to march in at the beginning dressed as bacteria representing Harvard’s Microbial Sciences Initiative (see photo above). Bacteria did get a bit of a bad rap during the show… there was much attention paid to the pathogenic bacteria, but given how much a tooth can ache, we suppose that is justified.

The microbial highlight of the evening was, in fact, a 3 act opera that took place on the surface of a woman’s tooth.
If nothing else, these awards are definitive proof that many (We might even say most) top-notch scientists have a sense of humor, albeit a quirky one. Please note that quirky, improbably science can be serious and noteworthy simultaneously. One Ig Nobel award winner (from 2000) won a Nobel prize in Physics this year and another the Macarthur genius grant last year. The Ig Nobel is our favorite science prize precisely because it recognizes quirky but GOOD science, doesn’t take itself seriously, and has a soft spot for bacteria.

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