CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS--A simulated terrorist attack struck the stage of Harvard University's Sanders Theatre last night. Just minutes before an (imagined) airborne biological warfare agent arrived, Elena Bodnar deftly pulled her bra off from beneath her shirt, unclipped the cups from each other, and attached them to the faces of two men. The public health researcher of the University of Chicago in Illinois was demonstrating her invention: a bra that can serve as a pair of emergency gas masks. The audience roared with approval as Bodnar received one of the 2009 Ig Nobel prizes.
Each year, close to the time when the real Nobel prizes are awarded, the Ig Nobels are bestowed upon scientists whose work "makes people laugh, and then makes them think," says Ig Nobel Master of Ceremonies Marc Abrahams. Bodnar's emergency gas-mask bra passed muster. So did the discovery that compostable garbage can be reduced to less than 10% of its mass by fermenting it with bacteria derived from the feces of panda bears. The lead author on that 2001 study, Fumiaki Taguchi, a microbiologist from Kitasato University Graduate School of Medical Sciences in Kanagawa, Japan, graciously accepted the prize on behalf of his team.
The official theme of this year's Ig Nobels was "risk"--a nod to the recent collapse of global financial markets. The Ig Nobel prize in economics this year went to the leaders of Iceland's major banks, who were widely credited with destroying their country's economy. On stage to bestow that prize was Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at Princeton University. (The Icelanders did not attend.) The financial collapse was depicted on stage as an operetta.
Cows and bar brawls also got the Ig Nobel nod. A team led by veterinary scientist Catherine Bertenshaw Douglas, from Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, discovered that cows that have names produce more milk than unnamed cows. She received her prize--dressed as a cow--and told the audience that the effect is easy to explain: Dairy farmers who name their animals take better care of them. Soon after, Stephan Bolliger, a forensic scientist from the University of Bern in Switzerland, broke a (fake) beer bottle over his head on stage. He was demonstrating his team's recent discovery that empty beer bottles are more likely to break a human skull than full ones. (The experiment was a request for forensic evidence for assault cases.) "In the movies, John Wayne doesn't even flinch," Bolliger says. But the 50 joules of energy a swinging beer bottle delivers to a skull is enough to crack it.
"If you didn't win an Ig Nobel prize tonight, and especially if you did," Abrahams told the packed audience of academics, "better luck next year."