Silly Science Honored With Ig Nobel Prizes

The winners of this year's Ig Nobel Prizes include work on the pain-relieving effects of swearing, researchers who studied techniques to collect whale snot, and more. The Igs honor research that "first, makes you laugh, then, makes you think," according to Marc Abrahams, the master of ceremonies and the editor of Annals of Improbable Research.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

IRA FLATOW, host:

You knew it was coming - the 20th First Annual Ig Nobel Awards ceremony, a tribute to the good, the bad and the ugly in science - really the strange, silly and unusual.

Last year's honorees included the American scientist who determined why pregnant women don't tip over, the Mexican physicist who created diamonds from tequila, and the Swiss team who tested whether it's better to be smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or with an empty bottle.

What will this year's ceremony bring? There's only one way to find out. On this holiday edition of SCIENCE FRIDAY we'll be taking you to Harvard Sanders Theater, where earlier this year the Ig Nobel Awards were handed out. We won't be taking calls this hour, so don't try to call in. But if you want more information about what we're talking about, go to our website at sciencefriday.com, where you'll find links to our topics.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Unidentified Woman: Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, literati, glitterati, pseudo-intellectuals, quasi-pseudo-intellectuals and gram-negative bacillococci - may I introduce our master of ceremonies, the editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, chief airhead Marc Abrahams.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Mr. MARC ABRAHAMS (Author, "The Man Who Tried to Clone Himself"): Thank you. We are gathered here tonight to honor some remarkable individuals and groups. Every winner has done something that first makes people laugh and then makes them think. The Ig Nobel Prize ceremony is produced by the science humor magazine the Annals of Improbable Research, and the Ig is proudly co-sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association, the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students, and the Harvard Computer Society. The editors of the Annals of Improbable Research have chosen a theme for this year's ceremony. That theme is bacteria.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Now, Professor Jean Berko Gleason will deliver the traditional Ig Nobel welcome-welcome speech.

Professor JEAN BERKO GLEASON (Boston University): Welcome, welcome.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: We are honored to have with us tonight several past winners of the Ig Nobel Prize. Each returning winner will express his or her sentiments about the occasion, concisely. We've asked them to limit their words to one Twitter tweet - 140 characters maximum. Referee John Barrett will enforce the speech limit.

And please welcome them one at a time. The 2004 Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology was awarded to the team that discovered that when people pay close attention to one thing, they can easily overlook anything else, even a woman in a gorilla suit. Please welcome Christopher Chabris.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Professor CHRISTOPHER CHABRIS (Albany Medical College): Gorillas are harder to see than we realize intuitively. But if you just took a close look at our book, "The Invisible Gorilla," you'd see your mind much more clearly.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Christopher Chabris.

The 2008 Ig Nobel Prize in Cognitive Science was awarded to the team who discovered that slime mold can solve puzzles. Please welcome Toshiyuki Nakagaki and Atsushi Tero.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man: Plus, we found that slime mold can be navigators, and this time we found that the slime mold can be transported (unintelligible) back.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Atsushi Tero and Toshiyuki Nakagaki.

The 1976 Ig Nobel Prize in Art was awarded to the creator of the plastic pink flamingo. Please welcome Don Featherstone and his wife Nancy Featherstone.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Mr. DON FEATHERSTONE (Artist): The plastic pink flamingo is the only animal fully protected from bacteria.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Mr. FEATHERSTONE: So feel free to give them to all your friends. It's good for business.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Don Featherstone.

The 2008 Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine went to the team who demonstrated that high-priced fake medicine is more effective than low-priced fake medicine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Please welcome the team leader, Dan Ariely.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Mr. DAN ARIELY (Behavioral Economist, Duke University): I never listen to instructions, so I'm not going to do this in 140 characters.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARIELY: I feel that I deserve the Ig Nobel every year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARIELY: And this year I deserve it for showing that bankers cheat more than politicians.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Dan Ariely.

We have one other returning winner. She has a special announcement. The one tweet limit does not necessarily apply to her. The 2009 Ig Nobel Prize in Public Health was awarded to the inventor of a brassiere that in an emergency can be quickly converted into a pair of protective facemasks. Please welcome Dr. Elena Bodnar.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Dr. ELENA BODNAR (President, Trauma Risk Management Research Center): Ladies, are we prepared tonight to protect ourselves from bacteria?

(Soundbite of cheering)

Dr. BODNAR: And gentlemen, just look around. Many of you are seated tonight next to an emergency bra wearer who may choose to save you from bacteria.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BODNAR: Or she may not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BODNAR: Well, it has been one year since my prototype demonstration on this stage, and it's a lot of work and many improvements. Here I am again proud that my emergency bra is now available for everyone.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Dr. BODNAR: It is an effective, economical and always readily available personal protective device, but first and foremost it is a beautiful piece of lingerie.

(Soundbite of laughter, applause and cheering)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Dr. Elena Bodnar and her bra.

And I'm delighted to announce we have - by special arrangement - one other returning Ig Nobel Prize winner. In addition to the thing that won him the Ig Nobel Prize, he has been prolific. He is the most prolific inventor in the history of Japan, with more than 3,000 patents. The 2005 Ig Nobel Prize in Nutrition was awarded to him for photographing and retrospectively analyzing every meal he had eaten for more than 34 years. Please welcome Dr. Nakamatsu.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Dr. YOSHIRO NAKAMATSU (Inventor): My first invention was at age of five. My number of inventions, including bacteria, is...

(Soundbite of cheering)

Dr. NAKAMATSU: ...(unintelligible) compared with Thomas Edison's 1,093. The number is still increasing.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Dr. Nakamatsu.

Tonight's keynote speech on the topic bacteria...

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: ...given by Richard Losick, the Harvard college professor, and Maria Moors, Cabot Professor of Biology at Harvard University. Please welcome the man and his bacteria, Rich Losick.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. RICHARD LOSICK (Molecular Biologist): (Unintelligible) many of you brought a guest or two this evening, or thought you did. I'm here to tell you that all of you brought a hundred trillion guests. These are the bacteria that...

(Soundbite of cheering)

Dr. LOSICK: ...live in our body. There are 10 times more of them than there are human cells in the body, and they contain 100 times more genes than all the genes in the human genome. These bacteria influence whether you're lean or obese, whether immune system has evolved properly. And consider this, they communicate with each other chemically, and undoubtedly, with their human hosts as well.

(Soundbite of noise)

Dr. LOSICK: Oh, permit me to translate, they're saying, please stop, we're bored. We're bored. Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Rich Losick, it's time for some music. Evelyn Evelyn will perform a special brief microbial mini-concert. Evelyn Evelyn will be accompanied by their bacteria. Please, welcome, welcome Evelyn Evelyn.

(Soundbite of applause)

EVELYN EVELYN (Vocal group): This is a totally, completely, utterly and, in every way, original brand new song that nobody has ever heard before, ever. And you're going to do it now.

(Singing) Bacteria. Bacteria. Bacteria. (Unintelligible), E. coli or Listeria, Listeria...

(Soundbite of laughter)

EVELYN EVELYN: (Singing) ...salmonella, streptococcus everyone beware, there are microbes in the air. Bacteria, bacteria, don't eat the shellfish in the cafeteria, feteria. Wash your hands whenever you touch money, poop or worms, got to kill those nasty germs. My best friend got clap, she died, another girl got thrush inside. That's not all the things that you can get. You can get. Some people got ulcers, some get bloody lungs, some people get acne, some just get the runs, or some undocumented and exotic, extremely malignant pathogens from Siberia or Nigeria or from right here-ria.

(Soundbite of laughter)

EVELYN EVELYN: (Singing) There's so much bacteria. Bacteria. You might get gangrene, anthrax or diphtheria, diphtheria or salmonella, whopping cat or catch bubonic plague, golly, germs are such a drag. Bacteria, bacteria, (unintelligible) criteria, they're deadly bad and gross. Bacteria, bacteria, we're all potential hosts. Bacteria, bacteria, we're all potential hosts.

(Soundbite of applause)

FLATOW: More silliness and more awards after this break. Stay with us. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: We now return you to your regularly scheduled Ig Nobel Awards already in progress.

(Soundbite of applause)

Dr. THOMAS MICHEL: May I have your attention please. I'm Dr. Thomas Michel, professor at Harvard Medical School and a senior physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Now, there's no need to worry, but we need to make you aware of a situation, someone sitting in this audience is covered with bacteria.

(Soundbite of screaming)

Dr. MITCHEL: Now, if you are sitting next to that person, there's no cause for alarm because, you see, every person in this audience is covered with bacteria.

Professor MARIA MOORS (Biology, Harvard University): In just a moment, the new Ig Nobel Prize winners will arrive. All the Nobel laureates, the past Ig Nobel Prize winners, the 24/7 lecturers and other Ig-nitaries are here on stage awaiting them. Now, here they are, please welcome the new Ig Nobel Prize winners.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Let's get it over with. Ladies and gentlemen, the awarding of the 2010 Ig Nobel Prizes. We're giving out 10 prizes, the winners come from many nations. This year's winners have truly earned their prices. Karen(ph), tell them what they've won.

Ms. KAREN HOPKIN (Creator, Studmuffins of Science Calendar): Thank you, muffin. This year's winners each receive an Ig Nobel Prize.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: And what else do they get?

Ms. HOPKIN: Oh, a piece of paper saying they've won an Ig Nobel Prize.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Any distinguishing marks on the paper?

Ms. HOPKIN: It's signed by several Nobel laureates and, oh, it's covered in bacteria.

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Oh, how nice.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: This is the coveted Ig Nobel Prize.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: We have never had money to award to the Ig Nobel Prize winners, but this is the 20th year of the Ig Nobel Prizes and a generous benefactor has stepped forward. This year, each winning team will be given $10 trillion, a genuine 10 trillion Zimbabwe dollar bill.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: And now, our winners, first, the engineering prize.

(Soundbite of applause and music)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: This year's engineering prize is awarded to Karina Acevedo Whitehouse and Agnes Rocha-Gosselin of the Zoological Society of London, U.K. and Diane Gendron of Instituto Politecnico Nacional in Baja, California Sur, Mexico for perfecting a method to collect whale snot using a remote control helicopter.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Here are Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse, Agnes Rocha-Gosselin and Diane Gendron.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Woman #1: Thank you. I would've liked to start this speech by saying, ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a whale snot catcher.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman #1: It's not really true, but I did always want to study wildlife disease.

Ms. DIANE GENDRON (Instituto Politecnico Nacional): In 2003, in the Marine Mammal Conference, we started thinking about serving whale health in free-living whales. So, I was thinking whales do smell bad and they do - in discussing it, we thought maybe it might have something to do with the infection.

Unidentified Woman #3: My knowledge of whale fieldwork is virtually zero, so I naively proposed inserting a swab into the whale's blowhole to look for bacteria and Diane laughed very hard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GENDRON: Wouldn't you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GENDRON: Well, discussing, I remember that in the field that the spout or the blow of the whale would come to our face and throw our glasses. So Karina's mind just started running. And at that moment, we started discussing idea about hanging out at the boat using an extendable (unintelligible) tested. So finally, we thought, if sampling the blowhole directly is not doable, why not use a remote-controlled helicopter? How else can you sample the largest living mammal without touching it?

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: The Medicine Prize.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: The Ig Nobel's Medicine Prize is awarded, this year, to Simon Rietveld of the University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands and Ilja van Beest of Tilburg University for discovering that symptoms of asthma can be treated with a rollercoaster ride.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Here are Simon Rietveld and Ilja van Beest.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. SIMON RIETVELD (University of Amsterdam): Thank you. We have always longed to ride the rollercoaster but Ilja was too scared and I couldn't bring my seeing-eye dog on the rollercoaster.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIETVELD: And then we had the chance to go to a local amusement park with a group of 40 young women, most of them patients with chronic severe asthma and they use several rollercoaster rides to induce emotions. And from that we learned that negative emotions before the rollercoaster are associated with breathlessness, even in patients without any airway obstruction. We also learned that positive emotions after the rollercoaster are associated with the lack of breathlessness, even in patients with a confirmed attack of airway obstructions.

These findings may have dramatic implications for use of medication, because asthma patients tend to overuse medication during negative emotions but they tend to under-use medication during positive emotions. A large dramatic implication of our research is that we now love rollercoaster.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RIETVELD: Thanks again for the (Unintelligible) awards.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: The Transportation Planning Prize.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: The Ig Nobel Prize in Transportation Planning, this year, goes to Toshiyuki Nakagaki, Atsushi Tero, Seiji Takagi, Tetsu Saigusa, Kentaro Ito, Kenji Yumiki, Ryo Kobayashi of Japan, and Dan Bebber and Mark Fricker of the U.K., for using slime mold to determine the optimal routes for railroad tracks.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Please note, the following are co-winners both of this year's prize in this field and in 2008 when they were awarded the Ig Nobel Prize for demonstrating that slime molds can solve puzzles. Those two-time winners are Toshiyuki Nakagaki, Ryo Kobayashi and Atsushi Tero. Here are Toshiyuki Nakagaki, Kentaro Ito, Atsushi Tero, Mark Fricker, and Dan Bebber.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unindentified Man: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: Two, three, four.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Slime mold is back.

Unidentified Man: Okay. I have a letter from slime mold. I read, okay. Here's what he wrote: I may only be an amoeba, an animal cell, not a mold. But for many long years, I've been bored to tears just crawling around in the (unintelligible). I was looking for a more of a challenge, then I was captured and put in a dish and fed (unintelligible) by some scientist bloke who sent me problems to solve with some (unintelligible). It turned out I have the right talent for finding the sorted path or solving the maze was only a phase. My (unintelligible) Tokyo was really quite easy (unintelligible) was a mess.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: So despite all the (unintelligible) to impress. Thank you for your attention.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Now, get set for the 24/7 lecturers.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: We have invited several of the world's top thinkers to tell us very briefly what they are thinking about. Each 24/7 lecturer will explain his or her subject twice. First, a complete technical description in 24 seconds, and then after a brief pause, a clear summary that anyone can understand in seven words. The first 24/7 lecture will be tutored by Toshiyuki Nakagaki, a professor of complex and intelligence systems at Future University Hakodate and two-time Ig Nobel Prize winner. His topic, slime mold. First, a complete technical description of the subject in 24 seconds. On your mark, get set, go.

Prof. TOSHIYUKI NAKAGAKI (Professor, Future University Hakodate): Slime molds looks like a just spread of mustard and a mayonnaise. But it is very organized as an organism. So slime molds can - sort of positive and to find the shortest connection passing the maze and slime molds can anticipate periodic and diametric events. And slimes molds...

(Soundbite of whistle)

Prof. NAKAGAKI: Oh, yes. Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: And now, a clear summary that anyone can understand in seven words. On your mark, get set, go.

Prof. NAKAGAKI: The blot we shouldn't look down upon, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: The next 24/7 lecture will be delivered by Mary Ellen Davey, research biologist at the Department of Molecular Genetics at the Forsyth Institute. Her topic, oral bacteria.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: First, a complete technical summary in 24 seconds. On your mark, get set, go.

Dr. MAY ELLEN DAVEY (Research biologist, Forsyth University): There's an extremely complex community of organisms that lives in the oral cavity. In order to survive, they must attach. They tend to attach along the gum line, on the tooth. Here, they make a tenacious, extracellular polysaccharide matrix that holds them together and protects them, thus creating dental plaque.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: And now, a clear summary that anyone can understand in seven words. On your mark, get set, go.

Dr. DAVEY: A sticky, slimy structures medley of microbes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Our final 24/7 lecture will be delivered by Neil Gaiman, author of...

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: ..."The Sandman," "Coraline," and quite a few other things, winner of three Hugo Awards, two Nebula Awards and quite a few other things. His topic, writer identification. First, a complete technical summary in 24 seconds. On your mark, get set, go.

Mr. NEIL GAIMAN (Author): Whenever you are in doubt as to whether the thing on the back of the book jacket is a writer or a bacterium, given the human population of six billion and positing that no more than half of them are published writers, that give us a maximum of three billion writers. There are about five nonillion bacteria on this planet. So the chances of a random life form on the back of the book jacket being a bacterium and not a writer are roughly three sextillion to one.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: And now, a clear summary that anyone can understand in seven words. On your mark, get set, go.

Mr. GAIMAN: It's probably a bacterium, not a writer.

(Soundbite of applause)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: The chemistry prize. The Ig Nobel Chemistry Prize this year is awarded to Eric Adams of MIT, Scott Socolofsky of Texas A&M University, Stephen Masutani of the University of Hawaii, and BP, British Petroleum, for disproving the old belief that oil and water don't mix.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Here are Eric Adams, Scott Socolofsky and Stephen Masutani.

(Soundbite of applause)

Professor ERIC ADAMS (MIT): Thank you. It's too bad that BP couldn't be with us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ADAMS: But in their stead and with no disrespect to either party, we bring you, Steve.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. ADAMS: Actually, we're all engineers who enjoy playing with water, Steve pours oil into water and watches it form small droplets. I look at how those droplets can be made smaller if you mix the oil with dispersants. And Scott's going to tell us how you put those droplets in the bottom of deep ocean and what happens to them.

Dr. SCOTT SOCOLOFSKY (Texas A&M University): Yeah, if the oceans are motionless, then the oil and some natural gas that comes out with it would rise quickly to the surface without mixing and would not mix into the ocean.

Professor STEPHEN MASUTANI (Hawaii Natural Energy Institute): Yeah, I told you so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SOCOLOFSKY: However, the experiments that we conducted and some field studies about 10 years ago showed that ocean currents and density differences actually cause the small droplets to leave the flume and form large, horizontal intrusions of a few hundred meters above the seafloor. And this is what was observed in the Gulf of Mexico.

Prof. MASUTANI: I was wrong. Unbelievable. Oil and water do mix?

Dr. SOCOLOFSKY: Yes. Actually, it's probably better that the oil stay subsurface, where it can be degraded by microbial organisms and keeping it subsurface also keeps it away from marine life in the coastal margins.

Prof. MASUTANI: Well, then everything turned out well in the end. We did the right thing.

Dr. SOCOLOFSKY: Maybe so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Thanks, guys.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: The economics prize. This year's economics prize is awarded to the executives and directors of Goldman Sachs, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and Magnetar, for creating and promoting new ways to invest money, ways that maximize financial gain and minimize financial risk for the world economy or for a portion thereof.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ABRAMS: The winners could not or would not join us tonight.

FLATOW: Previous Igs have honored a centrifugal force birthing machine that spins pregnant women at high speed. The patenting of the wheel, and the inventor of karaoke - he won a peace prize. The Ig Nobel prizes were awarded for achievements that first make people laugh and then make them think. Chief AIRhead, Marc Abrahams, says that it celebrates the unusual, honors the imaginative and spurs interest in science. The awards are given out by the science humor magazine, the Annals of Improbable Research. You can find out more about them at improbable.com. We'll be back in a moment with more from Sanders Theatre, so stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Don't try to adjust your set. We now return you to your regularly scheduled Ig Nobel Awards already in progress. In past years, awardees included the inventor of the ever-popular comb-over hairstyle who managed to get a patent on it to boot, and researchers who studied the connection between suicide and country music.

Other past winners have tackled the big questions in life, such as if I get a jet-lagged guinea pig, could a little Viagra help it recover? Hmm. One of the prizes this year in biology looked at oral sex among fruit bats.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: (Unintelligible) the physics prize. The Ig Nobel physics prize this year is awarded to Lianne Parkin, Sheila Williams and Patricia Priest of the University of Otago, New Zealand, for demonstrating that on icy footpads in wintertime people slip and fall less often if they wear socks on the outside of their shoes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Here is Lianne Parkin.

(Soundbite of applause)

Dr. LIANNE PARKIN (Preventive and Social Medicine, Dunedin School of Medicine): We're delighted to accept this useful-looking item (unintelligible) study rose out of the key-ring conversation one icy morning. And we certainly did a lot of laughing and some thinking during the course of our research. As to why we do this, well, one or two days every winter, the residents of (unintelligible) are faced with a seemingly intractable problem, namely how to negotiate very steep streets, which are icy, without falling over and breaking something. And historically some enterprising individuals have worn socks over their shoes, but at the time of our key-ring conversation, there was no good evidence to support this off-label use of socks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So as public health academics, we naturally felt obliged to conduct a proper evaluation of the socks over shoes intervention. So we undertook a randomized, controlled trial, a rigorous, randomized controlled trial. And we found that sock-enhanced footwear, such as this here, really did provide better traction on steep and icy slopes than unmodified footwear.

Therefore, we would like to suggest that you, too, consider applying a pair of socks to your shoes next time you encounter icy conditions. Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: The peace prize. The Ig Nobel peace prize this year is awarded to Richard Stephens, John Atkins and Andrew Kingston of Keele University U.K., for confirming the widely-held belief that swearing relieves pain.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Here is Richard Stevens.

Dr. RICHARD STEPHENS (Psychology, Keele University): OK. A peace prize for swearing or cursing, it may seem strange. But the neurologist Hughlings Jackson once said, he - the first stone of civilization was laid when first someone insulted rather than bludgeoned to death their fellowman. OK. Swearing, first words: Ask a midwife. Last words: Listen to a black box recorder on a plane that went down. Emotional words: I was interested in swearing as a response to pain. It was a very - it's a very common response to pain, but there'll be no previous public controlled experiment, so my students and I over the last few years devised a kind of a methodology. We give people the pain challenge, put your hand in ice cold water, we're going to swear, we'll say neutral words, they keep their hands in the ice cold water for longer. When they swear, that's what that shows there. It doesn't sound there. Our latest data - very interesting, we're trying to get it published - is we ask people how often they swear on a daily basis.

People that don't swear very often get much more of (unintelligible) effects in the experiment than people who swear a lot who get hardly any effect. So there you go, swearing, it's useful, but don't overdo it. Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: It's time for the big question. Three of the finest minds in the universe will answer a question that has plagued humanity for centuries. The question is: How many bacteria can dance on the head of a pin. Now, Nobel Prize winner Frank Wilczek will answer that question. On your mark, get set, go.

Professor FRANK WILCZEK (Nobel Prize winner): Well, I've calculated it in advance. It's 4,273,194,771,666. There is a pin for which that is the number of bacteria that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. WILCZEK: ...that can swim, or fewer.

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Thank you, Professor Wilczek. The question I remind you is how many bacteria can dance on the head of a pin. Now, Nobel Prize winner Sheldon Glashow will answer that question. On your mark, get set, go.

Dr. SHELDON GLASHOW (Higgins Professor of Physics, Harvard University): Frank did it the hard way. And there's a much easier way, making use of super string theory.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. GLASHOW: Well, there is a duality principle where very difficult problems like this one can be related to much simpler problem.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: A final and presumably very different approach to answering this question will be delivered by Ig Nobel Prize winner Dr. Nakamatsu. The question, I remind you, is how many bacteria can dance on the head of a pin. On your mark, get set, go.

Dr. YOSHIRO NAKAMATSU (Ig Nobel Prize winner): You know, there are many kinds of pin in the world. Therefore, there are kind of head of pin - so I invented my head of pin. Number of my head is 3.2017 trillion. That is the answer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: It's time now for the Win a Date With a Nobel Laureate contest.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Here is Karen Hopkin to tell us about our winner.

Ms. KAREN HOPKIN (Creator, "Studmuffin of Science Calendar"): Thank you, my peptococcu-pumpkin. Our beloved Bill Lipscomb has been with the Igs from the start. And tonight he's our prize. Be still my heart. William Lipscomb won the 1976 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his keen understanding of the forces of chemical attraction. He also invented a branch of science that relies heavily on hindsight called retrospectroscopy.

If you win tonight, you're in for the ride of your life. Happy birthday, Bill. We love you. Please give a warm Win a Date welcome to Bill Lipscomb.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: All right. Let's see which lucky audience member will win a date with this Nobel Laureate. When you entered the hall, you were given an attractive printed program. If your program contains a picture of French scientist Louis Pasteur playing with his food, then you've won a date. Come on down and collect your prize.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Congratulations to you both. Please give your attention to the writer of the Boston Globe's Misconduct column, Robin Abrahams.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. ROBIN ABRAHAMS (Columnist, Boston Globe): In spirit of cooperation and friendliness between the species, will all of you please rise, turn to someone you did not know when you came in, shake hands and exchange bacteria.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ABRAHAMS: Thank you.

Mr. ABRAHAMS: We ask each of we ask each of the bearded man in the audience -the bearded man in the audience, please remain standing. Everybody else, please sit down. You bearded men, please remain standing for a bit. Permit everyone to admire your beards.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: The public health prize.

(Soundbite of music and applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: This year's Ig Nobel public health prize is awarded to Manuel Barbeito, Charles Matthews and Larry Taylor of the Industrial Health and Safety Office, Fort Detrick, Maryland, USA for determining by experiment that microbes cling to bearded scientists.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: The winner was unable to join us for health reasons. He sent us an acceptance speech. Here to read his acceptance speech is Gary Dryfoos.

Mr. GARY DRYFOOS (Majordomo, Ig Nobel Awards): With deepest gratitude, I accept this honor. A scientist challenged me when I told him he shouldn't have a beard in the laboratory. That's why we did the experiment. We had indications that beards were detrimental to the fit of facemasks for chemical protection. But there wasn't any real information on protection against bacteria or other living organisms. There was nothing about this in the scientific literature. So we conducted our experiment to evaluate the hypothesis that a bearded man - or woman...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DRYFOOS: ...subjects his or her family and friends to risk of infection if his or her beard is contaminated by infectious microorganisms while he or she is working in a microbiological laboratory. We concluded that a bearded man or woman is more dangerous carrier than a clean-shaven man or woman because the beard is more resistant to cleansing, and that anyone working with infectious microorganisms should wash his or her beard or clean-shaven face before going home. The fellow who challenged me did shave off his beard when we finished the experiment. Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: There is a bearded man still standing over there and one over there. You may sit down if you like. The management's prize...

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: The Ig Nobel Prize in Management is awarded to Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda and Cesare Garofalo of the University of Catania, Italy, for demonstrating mathematically that organizations would become more efficient if they promoted people at random.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda, Cesare Garofalo.

Professor ALESANDRO PLUCHINO (Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Catania): When we received the announcement of the prize, we were a bit confused.

Professor CESARE GAROFALO (Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Catania): But on the other hand, it's very improbable that two theoretical physicists work in collaboration with social scientists and it is also true that our study started really for fun. But then, it became a more serious thing. Last, we note that our study fit in perfectly with the Ig Nobel motto -research that makes people laugh and then think. And so, we are honored to be here and accept your prize this evening.

Prof. PLUCHINO: We will try to explain what we have done in a few words. In the late '60s, Laurence Peter, a Canadian psychologist, advanced an apparently paradoxical principle: every new member in a hierarchical organization climbs the hierarchy until he or she reach his or her level of incompetence.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GAROFALO: From the Peter Principle, it follows that incompetence spreads over the entire organization since, in time, every position tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out his duties.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. PLUCHINO: In our paper, we have demonstrated by numerical simulation the validity of the principle.

Prof. GAROFALO: But above all, we have found a possible, apparently paradoxical solution to avoid its negative effects - adopt random promotions.

Prof. PLUCHINO: Many thanks. Many thanks.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: It's time for the triumphal handshaking with Professor Lipscomb. All the new Ig Nobel Prize winners will now emerge one by one through the sacred curtain, there to receive a token handshake from Nobel Laureate William Lipscomb. Let the emerging and the shaking begin.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: And now, ladies and gentlemen, Professor Jean Berko Gleason will deliver the traditional Ig Nobel goodbye, goodbye speech.

(Soundbite of music)

Prof. GLEASON: Goodbye. Goodbye.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ABRAHAMS: On behalf of the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students and the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association and the Harvard Computer Society, and especially from all of us at the Annals of Improbable Research, thanks for coming. And please remember this final thought: If you didn't win an Ig Nobel Prize this year, and especially if you did, better luck next year. Good night.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: That's all from us. Our thanks to Marc Abrahams and the folks at the Annals of Improbable Research. You can find out more at improbable.com.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: