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Ig Nobels Honor Studies of Lap Dancing, Soft Drink-Based Contraception

3 October 2008 (All day)
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Credit:J. Bohannon/Science

Science at its funniest. Clockwise from top-left: Master of Ceremonies Marc Abrahams with a paper airplane lodged in his hat; a silvery Harvard undergraduate; Redundancy, Again the operetta; and a demonstration of the jumping ability of fleas.

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS--Where can you see a Nobel prize-winning chemist, the inventor of the pink plastic flamingo, a sword-swallower, and an accordion band on the same stage--and all being pelted with paper airplanes? At the Ig Nobel prize ceremony, of course. Last night in a Harvard University theater, 10 teams of scientists were honored for research that "first makes you laugh, then makes you think."

Much like Sweden's slightly more famous Nobel Prize, the Ig Nobels often amount to a lifetime achievement award, granted on the basis of research that is considered highly significant--or hilarious, in the case of the Ig Nobels--many years later. But recent breakthroughs do get recognized if sufficiently world-shaking. This year's Ig Nobel Economics prize, for example, went to the discovery that a lap dancer's tips wax and wane with her ovulatory cycle (ScienceNOW, 5 October 2007). According to the study, published last year in Evolution and Human Behavior, a woman unconsciously signals her fertility state through body movements, which motivate her admirers to tip more generously. While accepting their Ig Nobel, Geoffrey Miller and Brent Jordan, psychologists at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, wryly noted that their research subjects earned double their annual salaries as scientists.

The sexual overtones continued with this year's Ig Nobel prize for chemistry. In a first for the Ig Nobel, two teams were honored for finding the opposite result. In a 1985 New England Journal of Medicine study, a team led by Harvard Medical School fertility researcher Deborah Anderson discovered that Coca-Cola is an effective spermicide when used promptly for vaginal irrigation after a sexual encounter. But 2 years later, a team led by Chuang-Ye Hong of Taipei Medical University in Taiwan found the soft drink's "spermicidal potency" lacking, as reported in Human Toxicology. In honor of the ambiguous findings, a Coca-Cola toast was made on stage by the ceremony's dignitaries, including Harvard chemist William Lipscomb (Nobel 1976) and fractal geometry pioneer Benoit Mandelbrot.

The cabaret-like ceremony included much more than scientific recognition. Don Featherstone (Ig Nobel 1996 for inventing the plastic pink flamingo) showed off his latest yard ornaments, and Dan Meyer (Ig Nobel 2007 for a study of the side effects of sword-swallowing) swallowed a sword on stage. Then, the world debut of an operetta called Redundancy, Again was performed with live accordion accompaniment. The audience also had a chance to get in on the action. Besides being encouraged to express themselves by folding pages from the program into paper airplanes and launching them toward the stage, two lucky audience members won a night out, one with Lipscomb in the Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest and the other with Mandelbrot in the Win-a-Date-With-Benoit-Mandelbrot Contest. Details of the date preconditions were not released, but both the winners and their prizes looked immensely pleased.

A list of the other recipients can be found here.

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