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Researchers 'Flip' for Science at the Ig Nobel Ceremony

Marc Abrahams, producer and master of ceremonies of the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, readies the audience for some unconventional science.
Marc Abrahams, producer and master of ceremonies of the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, readies the audience for some unconventional science. (Image credit: Mindy Weisberger for Live Science.)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — On Thursday, Sept. 22, a group of Nobel laureates ascended the stage of the Sanders Theater here at Harvard University, alongside opera singers, accordion players, roller derby players and two "human spotlights" covered from head to toe in silver body paint.

All were there for one reason — to award some of the strangest science of 2016.

The annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony celebrates unorthodox scientific research and offbeat achievements — you could call it a funhouse mirror of its serious cousin, the Nobel Prize. The science of the Ig Nobel's 10 winners frequently inspires laughter, but these unusual studies also encourage people to think more deeply about science, and about the questions that scientists ask and answer about our strange world. [Watch: 2016 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony]

And their questions were certainly off the beaten track this year. You may never have thought to ask if rocks have personalities, whether you can believe liars when you ask them about how much they lie, or how you might adapt your body so that you could live like a goat.

But some people did ask these intriguing questions. And Thursday night, they were recognized for their imaginative work. [Check out this year's Ig Nobel Prize winners]

One by one, each of the honorees stepped through a blue velvet curtain as their names were called, to receive their award — a large clock with two hourglass hands — handed over by a Nobel laureate. Winners had one minute to deliver an acceptance speech, before a "human alarm clock" — a trio of singers garbed as clocks — raised their voices in a chorus of dings and dongs to signal that the speaker's time was done.

As it happens, "time" was the theme of the entire evening. Prior to the ceremony's start, a man wearing a clock around his neck and a silver propeller on his head sat solemnly reading on stage under a sign proclaiming him to be "The Whirligig of Time." As people walked across the stage to take their places, several stopped to give his propeller a twirl.

In fact, every time a speaker mentioned the word "time," a chorus of cheers erupted from the audience. Time was also the central idea in this year's mini-opera, "The Last Second." In this three-act tour-de-farce, a scientist devises a plot to add a second to the clocks of the world so she can exploit that extra second for criminal gain — but her plan goes horribly awry.

In a mini-opera, a scientist plots to exploit the addition of a leap second to the world's clocks. (Image credit: Mindy Weisberger for Live Science.)

The extra leap second that was central to the mini-opera was also incorporated into the design of the clockface on the Ig Nobel awards — each was marked with 61 seconds.

And the mini-opera was only part of the entertainment that punctuated the awards presentation. Scientists also regaled the audience with micro-lectures, such as biologist Patricia Brennan, of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who summed up the topic of duck genital morphology in just seven words: "Deviant duck d**ks foiled by fabulous vaginas."

But perhaps the highlight of the evening took place at the ceremony's end, as Nobel laureates gleefully volunteered to test the thesis of the winner of the Perception Prize — whether things look different when you bend at the waist and look at them through your legs. The sight of Nobel laureates peeping through their legs at a cheering audience was perhaps the most appropriate way to end an awards ceremony that excels at taking people's expectations for science and turning them upside down.

Original article on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger
Mindy Weisberger

Mindy Weisberger is a Live Science senior writer covering a general beat that includes climate change, paleontology, weird animal behavior, and space. Mindy holds an M.F.A. in Film from Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.