CAMBRIDGE, MA (TR) – Researchers at two Japanese universities were on Thursday awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for demonstrating that slime mold can be used to determine the optimal routes for railroad tracks.
In a published paper (“Rules for Biologically Inspired Adaptive Network Design”), Toshiyuki Nakagaki of Future University Hakodate and Hiroshima University’s Atsushi Tero were among a nine-person team (from Japan and the U.K.) that demonstrated how the slime mold Physarum polycephalum forms networks with comparable efficiency, fault tolerance, and cost to real-world infrastructure, such as the Tokyo rail system.
Several members of the team, including Nakagaki and Tero, also won the 2008 Ig Nobel Prize in physics for showing that slime molds can solve puzzles.
Nakagaki and Tero — along with the eccentric Dr. Nakamats, who won an Ig Nobel in 2005 for photographing every meal he had consumed during a 30-year period — were on hand with 1,200 guests at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre to receive the prize during a ceremony that organizers described as being “filled with fruit bats, bacteria, opera singers, and paper airplanes.”
The annual awards, in their twentieth year, are produced by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research and honor achievements that first make people laugh and then make them think.
Ten prizes in all — centered around the theme of bacteria — were distributed. A whale-snot collector, which uses a helicopter, won in the engineering category, and a medicine award was given for a study that discovered that symptoms of asthma can be treated with a roller-coaster.
The ceremony also featured numerous tributes to various single-celled microorganisms, including a mini-concert by the group Evelyn Evelyn (Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley), who were accompanied by their bacteria. Everyone in the ceremony, upon taking the stage, sanitized their hands at an Ecolab hand sanitizer station.
The night included the premiere of a new mini-opera called “The Bacterial Opera,” about the bacteria who live on a woman’s front tooth, and about that woman.
For the first time, the event was broadcast live on YouTube.
Marc Abrahams, master of ceremonies (and editor of the magazine), closed the evening with his usual words of encouragement for future candidates: “If you didn’t win an Ig Nobel prize tonight — and especially if you did — better luck next year.”