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Science

Prize Patter

9.23.15

Justin Schmidt and Michael Smith with the Miss Sweetie Poos

Ig winners Justin Schmidt and Michael Smith are confronted by the Miss Sweetie Poos, who cut off overlong speeches.
Photograph by Alexey Eliseev


Ig winners Justin Schmidt and Michael Smith are confronted by the Miss Sweetie Poos, who cut off overlong speeches.
Photograph by Alexey Eliseev

Physics winners David Hu and his team receive their prize from Dudley Herschbach.

Physics winners David Hu and his team receive their award from Dudley Herschbach.
Photograph by Alexey Eliseev


Physics winners David Hu and his team receive their award from Dudley Herschbach.
Photograph by Alexey Eliseev

David Hu with co-winners, a Miss Sweetie Poo, and one of the Human Spotlights
Photograph by Alexey Eliseev


David Hu with co-winners, a Miss Sweetie Poo, and one of the Human Spotlights
Photograph by Alexey Eliseev

“There’s some extraneous material, but he is a flashlight.”

A helpful dawdler has just explained to me the presence of a nearly nude man—his unclothed portions painted silver—in the lobby of Sanders Theatre: he is one of a pair of Human Spotlights (themselves wielding long silver flashlights), an institution at the Ig Nobel Prizes, whose twenty-fifth annual iteration occurred on September 17.

The ceremony, typically attended by roughly 1,000 people, attempts (according to its motto) to honor achievements “that make people laugh, and then think.” The prizes—handed out by actual Nobel laureates, this year including Baird professor of science emeritus Dudley Herschbach (Chemistry, 1986) and professor of chemistry and chemical biology and of genetics Jack Szostak (Physiology or Medicine, 1993)—go to academics or scientists engaged in eccentric research that might strike lay observers as trivial. Besides the awarding of prizes, the evening features sundry humorous interludes, including a three-part rock opera on the ceremony’s chosen theme (this year’s was “Life”), and the 24/7 Lectures, in which academics are challenged to give a “complete technical description” of an abstruse topic in only 24 seconds, followed by a “clear, accurate summary that anyone can understand” in only seven words.  

The event and prizes typically receive large press coverage. The pithy prize citations make the rounds of the Internet, and otherwise obscure research thereby reaches the broader scientific community.

A few hours before the actual ceremony, the Human Spotlight isn’t the only oddity in sight: two men in white lab coats are wandering about with accordions, pumping the bellows and pressing the keys, filling the resonant space with spindly arpeggios, while up on the theater’s balcony this year’s winners—“Ignitaries,” as their nametags have it—are gathered for a brief “press period” before the start of the official ceremony. The winners are spread around the balcony’s cushioned benches. Some are dressed in formal attire, while others wear props that correspond to their discoveries—a foam traffic cone on the head, for instance. 

Without much trouble I spot a duo I will later deem the Bee Men—Justin Schmidt and Michael L. Smith—joint winners of the Physiology and Entomology Prize for experiments that entailed, respectively, getting stung by many different insects, and getting stung by one insect (a honey bee) on many different parts of the body. Schmidt created the Schmidt Sting Pain Index to compare the various stings he endured; Smith created a similar index that gauged pain by body location.

I don’t manage to speak with them—they’re a hot commodity as far as interviews go, their yellow shirts and fake, springy antennae acting like pheromones for the journalists—but snippets of their conversations with various reporters drift over. Schmidt—in a steady, slow voice that I can readily imagine mollifying all types of insects—comments evenhandedly: “Bugs will bite you too, bees will bite you…” 

With this rattling in my head, I introduce myself to the winners of this year’s Physics Prize: Patricia Yang, David Hu, Jonathan Pham, and Jerome Choo, affiliates of Georgia Tech who won their prize for determining that it takes most mammals, regardless of size, only about 21 seconds to empty their bladders. Fieldwork, they explain, was as simple as you’d imagine. They went to the Atlanta zoo, watched animals urinate, and timed them. The project was jumpstarted a few years ago when Hu, the project leader, was changing diapers. “I got peed on by my son,” he explains, “and I noticed that the time was very similar to that of the adult male.”

Standing in Sanders, the team is visibly excited, even though the award didn’t come as a complete surprise. According to Yang, users on Twitter were predicting their win for some months prior to the actual event: “When people saw the first figure of our paper—which is a big zoom-in of an elephant urethra—they said, ‘That’s the figure of the century. That’s gonna win the Ig Nobel Prize.’” 

As I thank the four researchers for their time and move away, the Bee Men are still being interviewed—Smith sober-mindedly ceding that “…you’re gonna take some pain,” as Schmidt, perhaps impersonating a bear (or so I hope; the context is lost to me), goes on excitedly about “…delicious young babies, [and] pounds and pounds of sweet honey.”

In the upper reaches of the balcony, Jaroslava Durdiaková and Peter Celec, of Comenius University in Bratislava, sit in the back row. They’re the joint winners of this year’s Medicine Prize, having studied the biomedical benefits or consequences of what they describe as “intense kissing.”

They represent only part of the research team. “Actually,” as Celec explains, “the first author of the paper cannot attend the ceremony, because she kissed her partner so intense that she—”

“—end up with wedding,” Durdiaková giddily finishes.

They’re a highly animated duo, pleased to win an Ig Nobel, though Durdiaková admits she’d never heard of the prize before winning it. “First I had to look up what the prize means and what it was about,” she explains. “And then I was excited for the rest of the month, I think.”

Down near the front of the balcony, Elisabeth Oberzaucher, winner of the Mathematics Prize, sits alone. As I walk to her, I pass in front of Smith, who’s informing a reporter that “the penis is really not that painful [a place to be stung].”

Oberzaucher’s work focused on Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty, a Moroccan emperor who lived in the late 1600s and early 1700s and allegedly sired 600 children across a span of 30 years. Along with Karl Grammer, who was unable to attend the ceremony, Oberzaucher created a computer simulation to determine just how Ismael managed this feat of prolificity. “It turns out,” she reports, “that he would have had to have sex something between once and twice a day—but actually no weekends, no breaks, for 32 years.”

Schmidt stands directly behind us. I can hear fragments of his current conversation—“She had one fall down her blouse,” falling down, in turn, to me—as Oberzaucher fervently describes her reaction to the win. “I’m totally flattered, happy, it’s great, great, great—amazing,” she’s saying. “It’s an award, really, that every scientist should want to win, because it’s an award that rewards you for being brave enough to think the unusual.”

“This,” she adds, “is something that is not rewarded today anymore, because we are all running after publications and funds.” And there are simpler, less grandiose benefits as well, she attests. “To learn laughing, and to remember how laughing feels,” she believes, “is good for many scientists.”

An organizer announces that the press period has ended. The Ignitaries are ushered away for a brief rehearsal. They move down to the stage, where they’ll be surrounded by accordions and both Human Spotlights, and where, an hour or so from now, they’ll briefly present their findings.

And perhaps they’ll make a joke or two of their own.

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