CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—Last night, an audience gasped and cheered as a slimy, yellow mass spread over Tokyo. The spectators, assembled here in an auditorium at Harvard University, weren't watching a cheesy horror film. They were witnessing award-winning research in action.
When the movie ended, Toshiyuki Nakagaki, a mathematical biologist at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, took the stage to accept one of this year's IgNobel prizes. Nakagaki won't be receiving $1.4 million dollars, like a few scientists will when the real Nobels are announced next week. But he will be among a select group of researchers whose studies, as the Ig Nobel committee says, "first make people laugh, and then make them think."
Nakagaki's work concerns a slime mold known as Physarum polycephalum, a yellow blob that feasts on bacteria and spores inside decaying logs. In the study, researchers grew the mold on an outline map of Tokyo with yummy oat flakes placed on the locations of 36 cities in the greater Tokyo area. As Physarum spread its tendrils to devour the food, it created a network of paths between the cities that almost exactly matched Tokyo's real transportation network. In fact, Physarum came up with a slightly better solution—not bad for a creature without a brain. For harnessing a slime mold to design better cities, Nakagaki and his colleagues won the Ig Nobel Prize for transportation planning.
This year marks the 21st anniversary of the Ig Nobel Prizes, an event organized by the humor journal Annals of Improbable Research to promote the public appreciation of science. Past winners have included everything from magnetic resonance imaging studies of human intercourse to investigations of the physics of the hula-hoop. All the research is real, and most Ig Nobelists—or at least those with a good sense of humor—show up to claim their prizes. This year's ceremony was an exception for including a cash prize: A $100 trillion note from Zimbabwe, the result of hyperinflation. (The note's actual value: nada.)
Last night's other prizes continued the tradition. Here's a roundup:
Engineering: Marine biologist Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse of the Zoological Society of London and colleagues for their method of collecting samples of whale snot using a remote-controlled helicopter.
Medicine: Psychologist Simon Rietveld of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and colleagues for discovering that asthma symptoms can be successfully treated with roller-coaster rides.
Physics: Public health researcher Lianne Parkin of the University of Otago in New Zealand and colleagues for proving that wearing socks on the outside of shoes reduces slips on icy surfaces.
Peace: Psychologist Richard Stephens of Keele University in the United Kingdom and colleagues for demonstrating that swearing alleviates pain.
Public health: Microbiologist Manuel Barbeito of the Industrial Health and Safety Office at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and colleagues for determining that microbes flourish in the beards of scientists.
Economics: The executives of Goldman Sachs, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and Magnetar "for creating and promoting new ways to invest money--ways that maximize financial gain and minimize financial risk for the world economy, or for a portion thereof."
Chemistry: Engineer Eric Adams of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and colleagues for disproving the belief that oil and water don't mix.
Management: Social scientist Alessandro Pluchino of the University of Catania in Italy and colleagues for mathematically demonstrating that organizations can increase efficiency by giving people promotions at random.
Biologist Libiao Zhang of the Guangdong Entomological Institute in Guangzhou, China, and colleagues for their study of fellatio in fruit bats.
*Libiao Zhang's affiliation has been corrected.