World’s Zaniest Scientists Honored: The 21th First Annual Ig Nobel Prizes

The 2011 Ig Nobel Prizes at Harvard University’s Historic Sanders Theatre

Some of the Ig Nobel Prize Winners at the Awards Ceremony

Ig Nobel Prize Winners with Genuine Nobel Prize Laureate Award Presenters

2011 Ig Nobel Prize Closing Ceremony: The Traditional Tearful Goodbye

World’s Zaniest Scientists Honored: The 21th First Annual Ig Nobel Prizes

In the ultimate accolade for the world’s mad scientists, spoof Nobel Prizes were awarded Thursday night for studies into beetle sex, turtles yawning, the desperation of people dying to urinate and other daffy investigations. The Annual Ig Nobel Prizes, now in their 21st year, were given at Harvard University in front of 1,200 spectators, with real Nobel Prize winners handing out the honors.

To win, scientists must “first make people laugh, and then make them think,” according to the Ig Nobel ethos. The Biology Prize, often a good source of humor at the Igs, went to Darryl Gwynne of Canada, Australia and the United States, and David Rentz of Australia, for their groundbreaking paper titled: “Beetles on the Bottle: Male Buprestids Mistake Stubbis For Females.” Which to the layman translates as: beetles tragically attempting to mate with an Australian beer bottle.

Several prizes delved into the extremes of human behavior under stress. Take, for example, the Medicine Prize, won by a Dutch-Belgian-Australian team with “Inhibitory Spillover,” a probe into the age-old challenge of needing to pee at a busy moment. The team investigated why “people make better decisions about some kinds of things, but worse decisions about other kinds of things, when they have a strong urge to urinate,” the awards citation said.

Research into the Psychology and Physiology Prizes must have been a great deal less stressful. The former went to a University of Oslo professor who looked at “why, in everyday life, people sigh?” The second concerned yawning in red-footed tortoises. For those who’ve been wondering, the British-Dutch-Hungarian-Austrian team has finally established that there is “no evidence of contagious yawning” in the creatures.

The 2011 Ig Nobel Prize winners:

Physiology Prize

Anna Wilkinson (of the UK), Natalie Sebanz (of The Netherlands, Hungary, and AUSTRIA), Isabella Mandl (of Austria) and Ludwig Huber (of Austria) for their study “No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise.”

Chemistry Prize

Makoto Imai, Naoki Urushihata, Hideki Tanemura, Yukinobu Tajima, Hideaki Goto, Koichiro Mizoguchi and Junichi Murakami of Japan, for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm.

Medicine Prize

Mirjam Tuk (of The Netherlands and the UK), Debra Trampe (of The Netherlands) and Luk Warlop (of Belgium). and jointly to Matthew Lewis, Peter Snyder and Robert Feldman (of the USA), Robert Pietrzak, David Darby, and Paul Maruff (of Australia) for demonstrating that people make better decisions about some kinds of things, but worse decisions about other kinds of things‚ when they have a strong urge to urinate.

Psychology Prize

Karl Halvor Teigen of the University of Oslo, Norway, for trying to understand why, in everyday life, people sigh.

Literature Prize

John Perry of Stanford University, USA, for his Theory of Structured Procrastination, which states: To be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that’s even more important.

Biology Prize

Darryl Gwynne (of Canada, Australia and the USA) and David Rentz (of Australia and the USA) for discovering that a certain kind of beetle mates with a certain kind of Australian beer bottle.

Physics Prize

Philippe Perrin, Cyril Perrot, Dominique Deviterne and Bruno Ragaru (of France), and Herman Kingma (of The Netherlands), for determining why discus throwers become dizzy, and why hammer throwers don’t.

Mathematics Prize

Dorothy Martin of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1954), Pat Robertson of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1982), Elizabeth Clare Prophet of the USA (who predicted the world would end in 1990), Lee Jang Rim of Korea (who predicted the world would end in 1992), Credonia Mwerinde of Uganda (who predicted the world would end in 1999), and Harold Camping of the USA (who predicted the world would end on September 6, 1994 and later predicted that the world will end on October 21, 2011), for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.

Peace Prize

Arturas Zuokas, Mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored tank.

Public Safety Prize

John Senders of the University of Toronto, Canada, for conducting a series of safety experiments in which a person drives an automobile on a major highway while a visor repeatedly flaps down over his face, blinding him.

The 2011 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony Promo

The 21th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Awards (The Full Ceremony)

Vilnius Mayor A.Zuokas Fights Illegally Parked Cars: Ig Nobel Peace Prize

John Senders Wins 2011 Ig Nobel Public Safety Prize: Pioneer Days on Rt 128

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W. H. Auden: A Reactionary Tract for Our Times

W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

W. H. Auden: A Reactionary Tract for Our Times

In June 1946, Harvard University observed its long-awaited Victory Commencement. For the first time since the end of WWII, alumni and graduates had a chance to gather in Harvard Yard. The ceremony was a time for the University to appraise all the changes the war had caused, and the even more profound changes that peace was about to bring. Twenty-six thousand Harvard alumni had served in uniform during the war, and 649 of them had died. The University itself had been integrated into the war effort at the very highest level. President James Bryant Conant had consulted with President Truman about the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan, and William Langer, a professor of history, had recruited many faculty members into the newly formed Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA.

As if to symbolize that intimacy, the 1946 Commencement awarded honorary degrees to the Chiefs of the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, and Air Force. More questionable was the choice of that year’s Phi Beta Kappa orator: Byron Price, who had served as Director of the Federal Office of Censorship, in charge of monitoring press coverage of the war. Price used the occasion to deliver a rather ominous exhortation to “the man of letters,” whom he accused, 10 months after the war ended, of still not doing enough for national morale. “How often,” he asked, “shall the seeker find between these myriad covers an ounce of literary beauty, or a thimbleful of spiritual elevation? We are served a fare of dissoluteness and destruction. We are asked to sneer at man and regard him as no better than the worm. We are invited to improve our minds by studying the endless sagas of criminals and harlots, moving in sordid surroundings, and worshiping only the flesh.”

Under Which Lyre

It was against this backdrop of war and peace, and a university caught between them, that W.H. Auden, that year’s Phi Beta Kappa poet, got up to deliver his own contribution to the festivities. If Auden was listening when Price issued his “commissar-like” advice to writers, he would have been revolted, but not surprised. In fact, his poem, Under Which Lyre, impishly subtitled A Reactionary Tract for the Times, was intended to be a retaliation against Price’s brand of official uplift. In 174 witty, neatly rhymed lines, Auden set out his prophetic vision of the challenges facing postwar America in general, and the postwar university in particular. Occasional poems usually fade pretty quickly, but even in 2007, the year of Auden’s centenary, Under Which Lyre remains one of his most charming and perceptive works.

Under Which Lyre begins by setting the scene, in language that is by by turns colloquial and quaintly literary. “Ares at last has quit the field,” Auden proclaims, invoking the Greek god of war. Drawing upon his memories of a bombed-out Germany, which he had visited in 1945 as an analyst for the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, he writes, “in their convalescent state/The fractured towns associate/With summer flowers.” He then turns to a less somber kind of postwar scene, one that his listeners at Harvard would have recognized with a laugh:

Encamped upon the college plain
Raw veterans already train
As freshman forces;
Instructors with sarcastic tongue
Shepherd the battle-weary young
Through basic courses.

Yet even as Harvard returned to its civilian pursuits and petty vanities, with students struggling with the poems of Donne, and “professors back from secret missions” bragging about their adventures, Auden saw another kind of conflict beginning to take shape. This was the war between two opposing sensibilities, the two social and spiritual visions, that Auden named Apollo and Hermes. Apollo, the Greek god of light and music, became for Auden “pompous Apollo,” the patron saint of “official art.” Against him, Auden set Hermes, the trickster god, protector of thieves and liars, who is “precocious and undisciplined.” Both of these gods can make a kind of music, but Auden asks the reader to decide “under which lyre” he will take his stand.

The comedy of the poem lies in Auden’s description of Apollo, the ruling spirit of what he called “the fattening forties.” The danger to postwar America, Auden suggested, lies in the soft tyranny of institutions, authorities, and experts, of people who know what’s best for you and don’t hesitate to make sure you know it, too. Auden gives a wonderful catalog of the things these Apollonians want to impose: colleges where “Truth is replaced by Useful Knowledge,” with courses on “Public Relations, Hygiene, Sport“; poems that “Extol the doughnut and commend/The Common Man“; even processed foods: “a glass of prune juice or a nice/Marsh-mallow salad.” In short, Auden was already predicting the dullest, most conformist aspects of American life during the Cold War years, the kind of prosperous mediocrity that gave the 1950s a bad name.

Auden’s Commandments for Free Spirits

But if it’s impossible to dislodge Apollo from his throne, Auden suggested thay you can still follow Hermes in private. That is why the last stanzas of Under Which Lyre offer a set of commandments for free spirits who refuse to fall into line:

Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
Thou shalt not write thy doctor’s thesis
On education,
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before

Thou shalt not answer questionnaires
Or quizzes upon World-Affairs,
Nor with compliance
Take any test. Thou shalt not sit
With statisticians nor commit
A social science.

His advice was half-joking, but only half. Auden was reminding his Harvard audience that all the official apparatus of the university is superfluous to its highest purpose, which is to cultivate freedom and inwardness. It is a message that still needs to be heard today, when the expense of higher education forces so many students to look at it as an investment, rather than an adventure.

Auden knew that a society run by Hermes would be a disaster; but a society without any followers of Hermes in it would be a true nightmare. That message makes Under Which Lyre a truly American poem, a defense of the individual against the masses. The continued life of Auden’s Phi Beta Kappa poem is a reminder that, when the generals and censors and other powers of the earth are forgotten, it is the mere poet who remains.

h/t to Adam Kirsch at The Harvard Magazine.

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