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Fleeting Wonders: The 25th Ig Nobel Prizes, Celebrating Scientific Silliness

Chemistry Ig Nobel winner Javier Morales gets interrupted by Miss Sweetie Poo in 2009. Morales and his cohort discovered a way to turn tequila into diamonds. (Photo: )

Chemistry Ig Nobel winner Javier Morales gets interrupted by Miss Sweetie Poo in 2009. Morales and his cohort discovered a way to turn tequila into diamonds. (Photo: Eric Workman/Improbable Research

People walking through Harvard Square last night may have heard, at various times: the sound of thousands yelling “HUH?,” the flapping wings of a lone flamingo, and the inventor of the floppy disk singing an original song about living with cancer—each followed by vigorous applause.

This was no weird fraternity rite—at least, not completely. It was the ceremony for the Ig Nobel Prizes, an annual tradition that simultaneously subverts and celebrates scientific culture (and award ceremony culture) by honoring research that “makes people laugh, then think.”

This year’s prizes went to teams of researchers who, among other things, attached artificial tails to chickens to make them walk like dinosaurspartially unboiled an egg; traced the universality of the expression ”Huh?”; and proved that all mammals take about the same amount of time to urinate (roughly 21 seconds). 

The trappings of the ceremony were themselves prizeworthy. At the beginning of the night, the honorees were led onstage by a giant leash; they were then given their awards by “genuine, genuinely bemused” Nobel laureates. Each winner received ten trillion (Zimbabwean) dollars, and many demonstrated their research—the chicken team strutted around with plunger-tails, and a group that studied the biomedical benefits of kissing encouraged the audience to make out like crazy.

The stage was lit by human spotlights covered in silver body paint, and the proceedings were punctuated by very short lectures, songs, an original opera, and two Official Paper Airplane Throwing Sessions. Acceptance speech length provisions were enforced by the greatest invention of the 21st century, Miss Sweetie Poo—an eight-year-old girl who, at the time limit, approached the microphone and politely repeated, “Please stop, I’m bored.” (She’s much more effective than the Oscars orchestra). To honor the event’s 25th anniversary, the Ig Nobels brought out a parade of Miss Sweetie Poos, who overtook the stage in a cascade of interruptions. 

The event is the capstone of the equally zany organization Improbable Research, which collects such research all year and releases it in the form of podcasts, blog posts and events. Boston-area fans can join the fun, and meet this year’s winners, at Saturday’s Ig Informal Lectures. And for those too shy to speak to such luminaries, remember: you can’t go wrong with a simple “huh?”

Every day, we track down a fleeting wonder—something amazing that’s only happening right now. Have a tip for us? Tell us about it! Send your temporary miracles to cara@atlasobscura.com.