Elizabeth Loder on the best thing about the Ig Nobel awards

Elizabeth LoderIt really was a dark and stormy night as I joined several hundred other geeks and nerds who ignored the remnants of tropical storm Nicole on September 30. We braved high wind gusts in order to attend the 20th First Annual Ig Nobel Awards in Memorial Hall on the Harvard campus.  The BMJ hired a proper journalist to cover the event, which leaves me free to focus on the highlights.

Things were in full swing when I arrived. A local group of doctors known as the Boston Squeezebox Ensemble was in the midst of an accordion concert. The MIT Press was making the most of an opportunity to hawk an assembly of books that all seemed to have the words “geek” and “nerd” in their titles. Last year’s winner of the Public Health Prize had succumbed to temptation and gone corporate. Underneath the tablets inscribed with the names of Harvard students who had “laid down their lives in the war for the preservation of the Union” fiery red “emergency bras” were on sale.  In case you missed the press coverage last year, in an emergency the bra can be converted into two face masks: one for the wearer and one for a “needy bystander.”

The prize committee showed its usual combination of humour and ingenuity in coming up with the list of winners. The medicine award went to two Dutch doctors “for discovering that symptoms of asthma can be treated with a roller-coaster ride.”  Attention to the symptoms of dyspnea is modulated by the positive or negative “emotional valence” of a situation, they suggested, although it occurred to me that the catecholamine release prompted by a scary ride might also make a difference.
The Peace Prize had some medical relevance. Richard Stephens and colleagues were honoured for showing that swearing decreases pain perception – unless, that is, you are a male with a tendency to catastrophise.  Manuel Barbeito and colleagues bagged the Public Health Prize for showing that bearded men in a laboratory are hazards to their “family and friends” because of the micro-organisms they might bring home in their beards.  As a commentator pointed out, a shortcoming of the work was its failure to consider whether bearded women pose a similar hazard. I’m sure the editors of the journal Applied Microbiology, where the work was published, are suitably embarrassed that this oversight was not detected during their peer review process.

The most admirable element of the whole Ig Nobel event is not its mockery of the real Nobel awards, although that is certainly enjoyable. No, the best thing is the way the organisers keep the honorees from actually banging on for too long about their work. The acceptance speeches are mercifully brief. In a tradition worth emulating whenever awards are given, winners are limited to a one minute speech. If they exceed their time they are hounded off the stage by a small girl known as Miss Sweetie Poo. She shouts, “Please stop, I’m bored!” until the transgressor leaves the podium.  It’s remarkably effective. This year Miss Sweetie Poo only had to make one appearance, when the winners of the biology prize – for the use of a remote controlled helicopter to collect whale snot – warmed too much to their topic. Depending upon the context, a minute can be a long time. I’m sure I was not the only audience member who was relieved to see Miss Sweetie Poo leave her seat onstage and skip over to the podium.

I haven’t been to previous Ig Nobel ceremonies, but it may be that in their 20th year the festivities are a bit overripe. The strict time limits applied to acceptance speeches aren’t enforced for the musical interludes or other entertainment. Some of those things were very funny and some were, well, lame and sophomoric. But in the world of college humour, which this is, that’s a compliment, and the Ig Nobels were mostly great fun. Along with Miss Sweetie Poo a recurring Ig Nobel joke is that real Nobel laureates take part in the ceremonies. One, physics laureate Roy Glauber, has “humbly” swept paper airplanes from the stage for many years.  It was mostly Physics laureates on stage. Perhaps that shows physicists tend to have a good sense of humour, or maybe it shows they are confident enough in their achievements not to mind a harmless bit of satire. All I know is that I don’t expect to see Peace laureate Al Gore on stage at the Ig Nobels anytime soon. That would be funny on too many levels.

Elizabeth Loder is the BMJ’s US based clinical epidemiology editor.