Bacteria and bat sex at Ig Nobels last night
Have you ever wondered if bats fellate each other?
“We were BLOWN away by the results,” Gareth Jones, a member of the team that won the 2010 Ig Nobel prize in Biology. He and his team were researching the lives of the common fruit bat, and in the course of their research, they discovered something intimate: This species of bat enjoys oral sex.
Jones came prepared with a video and hand puppets to demonstrate their findings, but were promptly shooed off stage by the V-Chip Monitor (don’t ask).
At the Ig Nobels, which celebrate the weirdest and most interesting discoveries in the past year, “weird” barely begins to describe the proceedings. Last night, there was an accordion-playing duo wearing one dress, guys dressed up as savages holding flashlights, and a plea to hold off on throwing the paper airplanes (provided to all in attentance) in the first five minutes of this awards “ceremony” known as the 20th First Annual Ig Nobel Awards.
In a delightful ceremony (attended by such dignitaries as the King and Queen of Swedish Meatballs) that jumps from winner to opera to moments of science in a seemingly spontaneous fashion, the Ig Nobel awards are put on by the Annals of Improbable Research to honor those people who have invented or researched things that not only make people laugh, but make them think. Each winner’s speech lasts about a minute.
The celebration is deserved. After all, where would the world be without laureate Dr. Elena Bodnar and her emergency bra ($29.99, ebbra.com), which can be converted into two protective face masks?
This year’s theme was bacteria. Each attendee brought trillions of guests to the ceremony. They were everywhere, and when The BIG Question was asked to three of the distinguished scientists there, only one could answer the question, “how many bacteria can dance on the head of a pin?”
Toshiyuki Nagasaki brought a replica of a human head and said 3.2 trillion could dance on it. Another guest saw his hourglass (in the form of a water bottle slowly being emptied), promptly spilled over when he tried to use his 30 seconds to explicate his response using string theory.
So of course, these bacteria had to be respected, with the entire audience participating in a bacterial exchange (a handshake of an unknown seatmate). After the germ-swapping, the Ig Nobel prize in Public Health went to the team who determined that in biological labs, bearded men or women run the highest risk of transmitting pathogenic bacteria.
There was even an entire opera dedicated to bacteria, who were trying to get off a woman’s tooth in a dramatic fashion (featuring the likenesses of Spock and Kirk). The finale as they were about to make their escape found the woman being inconsiderate to the lives of the bacteria and mouthwashing them to their demise.
After the opera segments, there were “moments of science.” One demonstration showed off some billowy gas that glowed to oohs and aahs from the audience. The audience was just as amused when scientists tried to show them E. Coli under a microscope — but couldn’t find any.
Slime molds can find anything though. The award for Transportation Planning was given to a group of Japanese scientists who were able to get slime molds to determine optimal routes for railroad tracks. Asked to describe their results in seven words, they said: “the blobs that shouldn’t be looked down upon”.
The prize in management was awarded to a project that proved that business work better if people are promoted randomly (so as to spread out the incompetence). And, in 140 characters, one of the Nobel Prize Laureates gave a speech on the importance of the plastic pink flamingo.
If you sort of squinted, some of the research was actually kind of useful. The prize in chemistry was given to a team (one of which was BP, represented by a guy, Steve, in a costume), for proving that oil and water mix; the prize in physics was given to three New Zealand women who proved that wearing socks on the outside of snow boots helps you traverse slippery surfaces.
What did all these award winners receive as their prize? A nice plaque with a bacteria-covered petri dish, a bacteria-covered slip of paper, and 10 trillion (Zimbabwe) dollars.
The many nuances and foibles that make up the Ig Nobel awards give it a unique character that infamously stereotype it as the most unorthodox science ceremony around. For good reason too. And so we say “goodbye, goodbye” and shed a tear to another year’s presentations gone by.
A radio broadcast of the awards will be on NPR’s Talk of the Nation on the Friday following Thanksgiving.