Lifestyle: When Science Gets Weird

In 2009, three Nobel Laureates stood on stage in Harvard University’s Sanders Theater while Dr. Elena Bodnar strapped bra cups to their faces. Two weeks ago, a team of Chilean biologists strutted across that same stage with plungers tied to their bottoms, illuminated by human spotlights–that is, nearly naked scientists covered head-to-toe in silver paint.

This was all done in the name of science, of course.

Each September, the satirical science magazine Annals of Improbable Research hosts the Ig Nobel Prizes, a tongue-in-cheek awards gala honoring legitimate–albeit improbable–scientific research that inspires people to laugh, and then to think.

At the ceremony, “genuine, genuinely bemused” Nobel laureates present honorees with their prizes, which are accompanied by 10 trillion Zimbabwean dollars. Notable among this year’s winners were a team who tested the biological principle that nearly all mammals urinate in roughly 21 seconds; another that successfully uncooked a boiled egg; and the US/Canadian partners who created the Schmidt Sting Pain Index by allowing honey bees to sting one of the team members on his nostrils, upper lip, and penis, among other undesirable places. Then there were the Chileans, who proved that by attaching a plunger-like appendage to the tail of a chicken, the bird could be manipulated into walking like a dinosaur.

Not in attendance were the Bangkok Metropolitan Police, who snagged the Economics Prize for offering policemen extra cash if those policemen refused to accept bribes.

With the disorienting spectacle of a game show, the pomp of the Oscars, and the half-baked antics of a frat house, the Ig Nobel Prizes deliver a performance not soon to be forgotten. This year’s ceremony included a Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate segment, an appearance by the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Science (LFHCfS) Man and Woman of the Year, and the infamous eight-year-old Miss Sweetie Poo, who announces her presence by shouting “Please stop, I’m bored!” at honorees who have overstepped their allotted acceptance speech time.

While the achievements honored at the Ig Nobel Prizes may not be the most significant discoveries of the year, they serve as a reminder that science can be playful, and mysterious, and surprising.

As Marc Abrahams, editor and cofounder of Annals of Improbable Research wrote in 2012, “It can be tempting to assume that ‘improbable’ implies more than that–implies bad or good, worthless or valuable, trivial or important… Improbable is, simply, what you don’t expect.”

Feature photo courtesy of ptwo.