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Penguin Poop, Smelly Frogs Among 2005 Ig Nobel Winners

Adrianne Appel
for National Geographic News
October 7, 2005
 
Coat tails, Nobel laureates, and ceremonial speeches marked the 15th annual Ig Nobel science awards ceremony held last night at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

But lest there be any confusion, not much else about the wacky Nobel Prize spoof resembles the real thing—except the science, which, believe it or not, is genuine.

The Ig Nobels ceremony pays homage to seemingly inane research projects, like testing the smells of 131 different types of frogs and investigating whether humans swim faster in water or syrup.

"These achievements speak for themselves," said Marc Abrahams, creator of the Ig Nobels and editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, the science humor magazine that coordinates the prizes.

"The point [of the awards] is to expose people to things they might not come across," he said.

The annual gala was cosponsored by two Harvard-Radcliffe groups, the Science Fiction Association and the Society of Physics Students.

Wacky Winners

Claire Rind and Peter Simmons of Newcastle University in England nabbed the 2005 Ig Nobel Peace prize for their work electronically monitoring the brain cells of locusts as the insects watched selected scenes from Star Wars.

"The reason I did the research was curiosity. I had to know," Rind said in jest. Like the other recipients, she was allotted just 60 seconds in which to make her acceptance speech.

On a serious note, her research studies the way that locusts avoid predators. She hopes the information will lead to new tools that will help cars avoid collisions.

The winners of the Ig Nobel Fluid Dynamics prize—hailing from universities in Finland, Germany, and Hungary—won for calculating the pressure that builds up inside a penguin's bowels before it defecates.

But none of the honored penguin researchers were able to attend the ceremony because the U.S. denied them visas.

"Let's hope [the visa denials] had nothing to do with the explosive nature of our work," one of the scientists quipped in a videotaped acceptance.

Greg Miller, a private citizen of Oak Grove, Missouri, was feted with an Ig Nobel Medicine prize for his dedicated hours spent developing Neuticles, artificial replacement testicles for neutered dogs and cats. His product comes in three sizes and three degrees of firmness.

"It took two years to get the balls rolling," Miller said in a video address to the audience.

A large team of international researchers won the Ig Nobel in Biology for their paper in the February 2004 issue of the journal Applied Herpetology. Their research, which cataloged frogs that smell like vanilla and others like flowers, may result in new perfumes or lead to frog-skin-based biopharmaceuticals.

The Economics prize went to Gauri Nanda of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for her invention of an alarm clock on wheels. The clock's purpose is to force people out of bed and into a productive work day more quickly.

"I just wanted people to have something to laugh at in the morning," Nanda said in her 60 seconds.

Other winners include:

• John Mainstone and the late Thomas Parnell, of University of Queensland, Australia, who won the Physics prize for their experiment, began in 1927, to observe how long it takes tar to move through a funnel.

• Anonymous Internet entrepreneurs of Nigeria, who won the Literature prize for writing compelling short stories that are then sent to millions of people around the globe via the Internet, accompanied by pleas for cash.

• James Watson of New Zealand's Massey University, who won the Agricultural History prize for his detailed exploration of a pair of exploding trousers.

• Yoshihiro Nakamats of Tokyo, who won the Nutrition prize for his meticulous photographing of every meal he has eaten during the past 34 years.

Ceremonial Silliness

Former Nobel winners, including Dudley Herschbach (Chemistry 1986), William Lipscomb (Chemistry 1976), Robert Wilson (Physics 1978), and Sheldon Glashow (Physics 1979), handed out the prizes at this year's ceremony.

Presenter Frank Wilzcek (Physics 2004) couldn't make it, but his two daughters, Amity and Mira, delivered a dummy made in his likeness to occupy his chair on stage.

Other oddball happenings make the Ig Nobels an all around unique scientific convocation.

All night long, the audience pelted the celebrants and each other with paper airplanes.

"It's fun. It shows irreverence," explained attendee Scott Henderson, a Harvard engineering student, about the airplanes. "It's nice to see the scientists cut loose."

The king and queen of Swedish Meatballs—a humorous nod to the Swedish royalty who host the Nobel Prize ceremonies—presided over the event, while a young girl dubbed Miss Sweety Poo kept the ceremony on schedule by loudly beseeching longwinded speakers, "Please stop, I'm bored."

Wilson, the 1978 physics Nobel winner, was this year's prize in the Ig Nobels Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel Laureate contest.

And the performance of the event's annual mini-opera, this year titled "The Countess of Infinity," was not to be missed.

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