Ignobility

The Ig Nobels are annual prizes awarded for scientific research “that first makes people laugh, and then makes them think.” (Among the two decades of past winners are a UK research team “for confirming the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain,” a trio of Mexican engineers for creating diamonds from tequila, and a pair of US physicists “for proving mathematically that heaps of string or hair or almost anything else will inevitably tangle themselves up in knots.”)

While my first MIT physics exam unfortunately took priority over the 22nd First Annual Ig Nobel award ceremony, which was held this past Thursday in Harvard’s Sanders Theatre, I did make it to the Ig Informal Lectures on Saturday.

In the Lectures, each of this year’s Ig winners had five minutes to give a summary of their research and results. (This is an improvement over the award ceremony, where each winner has one minute to explain their research.)

Keromin, the Amazing Frogs!, an ensemble of stuffed-frog-based-theremin players, provided timekeeping for the lectures via stuffed-frog-chorus. They also opened the lectures with a selection from The Magic Flute, assisted by opera soloist Roberta Gilbert.
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Though the five-minute presentations were already riotously funny, they were broken up with demonstrations from previous Ig Nobel laureates. Elena Bodnar, co-inventor of an emergency bra (the cups of which can be turned into particulate-filtering face masks in a disaster) showed off her invention on a hapless audience member. Dan Meyer, the co-author of a paper on the long-term injuries suffered by sword swallowers — and a performer and sword swallower himself — demonstrated with both a standard sword and a stick of LEDs with a hilt. When the lights were off, you could see the LED “sword” glowing through his throat, which was somewhere between the creepiest and coolest thing ever.
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The afternoon ended with an audience recitation of William McGonagall’s staggeringly bad poem “The Tay Bridge Disaster,” which concludes with this accurate-if-rather-unpoetic observation:

Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

Wise words.

I’m already planning to go to the award ceremony proper next year, but — should another physics exam foil my plans — the Informal Lectures were a fantastic way to while away a Saturday and learn a little bit about nanodiamonds, fluid dynamics, and ponytail physics at the same time.

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