Sep. 26, 2014

Who’s Got the Biscotti? Mingling at the Ig Nobel Awards After-Party

by Carmen Nobel

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Listen to Science Friday's highlights from the 2014 Ig Nobel Prizes here.
 
At a Boston-area house party this past Saturday, the man of the hour is an 86-year-old Japanese inventor who claims more than 3,500 patents and counting.
 
Yoshiro Nakamatsu’s inventions include the Cerebrex, a robotic armchair that stimulates blood flow to the brain; Love Jet, a libido-boosting spray that purportedly slows the aging process and negates the need for foreplay; and, according to his business card, the floppy disk. But among this crowd tonight, the man better known as Dr. NakaMats is best known for having photographed and analyzed every meal he has eaten since 1971. This earned him the 2005 Ig Nobel Prize for Nutrition and an invitation to deliver the keynote at the 2014 Ig Nobel ceremony.
 
The Ig Nobel Prizes honor 10 quirky scientific achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make people think,” according to Marc Abrahams, editor of a science magazine called The Annals of Improbable Research, which has sponsored the prizes since 1991. Receiving a prize is a dubious but increasingly prestigious honor. This year the judging committee received some 9,000 nominations. “Twenty percent came from people who nominated themselves,” Abrahams says.
 
Winners travel from all over the world to attend the annual festivities, which include an operatic ceremony at Harvard’s Sanders Theater and a lecture series at MIT. The weekend culminates at the brownstone home of Jackie Baum (an artisanal cookie maker) and Stanley Eigan (a math professor), who have hosted an informal after-party every year since the Prizes debuted. (Read about last year's party here.)
 
The guest list comprises past and present Ig Nobel winners; prize ceremony staffers; and local scientists, such as renowned psycholinguist Jean Berko Gleason, who tonight is wearing a medal she won 66 years ago for excelling in 12th grade Spanish. For much of the evening, she discusses Chinese grammatical particles with Kang Lee, a developmental neuroscience professor at the University of Toronto who won the 2014 Neuroscience Prize “for trying to understand what happens in the brain when people see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast.”
 
Nakamatsu sits in the living room, donning an MIT baseball cap and an oversized jacket. The majority of guests take a turn chatting with him, knowing it may be their last chance. At a news conference last June, Nakamatsu announced he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and that his doctors don’t expect him to live past the end of 2015. Then he shared plans for the time he has left. Inventing a new cancer treatment was at the top of the list, according to The Japan Times.
 
Gus Rancatore, a co-author of the new Ig Nobel Cookbook, spends several minutes in deep conversation with Nakamatsu. “We talked about many things,” Rancatore says afterward. “He is much more impressive one on one, when the intelligence in his eyes is fierce. He did talk about his cure for cancer, which he said was not through food, but more through music.”
 
Does Rancatore believe Dr. NakaMats really invented the floppy disk? “If he had invented the floppy disk it would not be floppy,” Rancatore says. “It would be threateningly tumescent.”
 
During a conversation about Nakamatsu’s other inventions, host Eigen points out a guest by the door—Bill Simpson, a lightning rod designer and fervent Love Jet customer. In his marketing campaigns, Nakamatsu often cites an American couple who remarked that the Love Jet was “the best invention since apple pie.” He’s referring to Simpson and his wife.
 
“It’s a female Viagra, and it works,” says Simpson, who first ordered the product from an Australian website. Recently, he became a distributor of the product. “I’ve got to do something in my declining years,” he says.
 
Back in the dining room, honored scholars nibble honey-laced biscotti as they discuss the topics that earned them a spot here.
 
Members of two research teams bond over their shared Public Health Prize for “investigating whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat.” One winning study looked at links between toxoplasmosis and schizophrenia. The other used data from electronic medical records to describe a relationship between cat bites and human depression.
 
The lead author of the depression paper, David Hanauer, chats with the toxoplasmosis scholar, Jaroslav Flegr, a biology professor at Charles University in Prague who sports a halo of wild, red hair.
 
Flegr suggests that Hanauer investigate the role of Rh factor, a protein found on the surface of red blood cells, in future studies. The two hadn’t met until this weekend. “It’s gotten us to talk to each other about our research,” says Hanauer, an associate professor at the University of Michigan Medical School.
 
Hanauer admits he’s a little worried that prize-generated publicity will result in misleading media coverage about his study. “We’re reporting a correlation, not a cause,” he says. “If you look at the data on people with cat bites, you notice that a significant number of them are depressed.”
 
“Do you have any data on raccoons?” asks David Holzman, a science writer from Lexington, Massachusetts. “I was bitten by a raccoon at the Oakland Zoo in 1956.”
 
“We looked at cats,” Hanauer says.
 
Meanwhile, partygoer Hynek Burda, head of zoology at the University of Duisburg-Essen, co-authored a study that looked at dogs. His team won the 2014 Biology Prize “for documenting that when dogs defecate and urinate, they prefer to align their body axis with the earth’s north-south geomagnetic field lines [but only when the magnetic field is stable].”
 
Throughout the evening, young members of his team distribute goody bags containing a piece of milk chocolate, a plastic compass, and a card advertising a smartphone app that lets dog owners document and share doo-doo data. The team might use the crowd-sourced information in future research. One outstanding question: Why do some dogs walk in a circle before relieving themselves, and what makes them decide whether to go clockwise or counterclockwise?
 
“We’re looking for a common denominator,” says Sabine Begall, an assistant professor of zoology at the University of Duisburg-Essenand and member of Burda’s team.
 
Begall was thrilled to win an Ig Nobel. “It’s a lifetime experience,” she says. “Accepting the prize on that stage was the most intense 60 seconds of our lives.” 
 
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About Carmen Nobel

Carmen Nobel is a writer and editor based in Watertown, Massachusetts.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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