The mysteries of bat sex and whale snot and an unusual way to deal with human pain were the focus on Thursday of the annual tongue-in-cheek Ig Nobel Prizes.
Ten winners were declared at the ceremony held in Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, with eight of them on hand to receive their prizes, and the ceremony broadcast on YouTube. Real-life Nobel laureates, including 2004 physics winner Frank Wilczek and 1985 peace prize winner James Muller, handed out the awards. Recipients were allowed a maximum of 60 seconds to deliver their acceptance speech, a time limit enforced by an eight-year-old girl.
An idea to use a remote-control helicopter to collect whale snot won the engineering prize for a British-Mexican team, with the project under the authentically geeky title “A Novel Non-Invasive Tool for Disease Surveillance of Free-Ranging Whales and Its Relevance to Conservation Programs.”
Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse and others at the Institute of Zoology in London developed a way to collect fluids ejected from whales’ blowholes by attaching petri dishes to the underside of small, remote-controlled helicopters.
A Dutch pair of scientists won medicine honors for their discovery that a roller coast ride can treat asthma symptoms, while a British-Japanese team took the transportation-planning prize for use of “slime mold to determine the optimal routes for railroad tracks.”
Three British researchers at Keele University were the surprise peace prize laureates for proving that swearing relieves pain, while an experiment determining that microbes cling to bearded scientists took the health prize.
Psychologist Richard Stephens, who began the pain study after striking his thumb with a hammer, found volunteers could tolerate more pain if they repeated swearwords rather than neutral words.
The economics prize went, with tongue jammed in cheek, to the executives of Goldman Sachs, AIG, Lehman Brothers and other central players in the US economic crisis for “new ways to invest money — ways that maximize financial gain and minimize financial risk for the world economy.
A more scientific view on the business world was rewarded with the management prize, which went to researchers at the University of Catania, Italy, for “demonstrating mathematically that organizations would become more efficient if they promoted people at random.”
Finally, a Chinese-British team of researchers walked off with the biology prize for revealing to the world documentary evidence of fellatio in fruit bats. The team showed that females who performed oral sex on their mates copulated for longer.
The Igs are Harvard’s humorous take on the Nobel Prizes. They claim to “make people laugh and then make them think.”
Then Marc Abrahams, editor of Annals of Improbable Research, which helped sponsor the Igs, commented on the strong showing of UK scientists this year by saying: “The nation may agonize over its place in the world, but in this one thing at least, Britannia rules.”
He closed the ceremony with the traditional: “If you didn’t win an Ig Nobel prize tonight — and especially if you did — better luck next year.”
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