Former RIKEN researcher ‘honored’ with Ig Nobel

A group of Japanese scientists including former RIKEN researcher Toshiyuki Nakagaki were among this year’s winners of the Ig Nobel Prizes, recognized for their discovery that a unicellular amoeboid organism can figure out the shortest distance in a maze.

Nakagaki, now an associate professor at Hokkaido University, who worked previously at the RIKEN Frontier Research System (now the Advanced Science Institute), along with Atsushi Tero, a researcher at the Japan Science and Technology Agency, and Ryo Kobayashi of Hiroshima University, received the prize for cognitive neuroscience at Harvard University on October 4.

The scientists’ research revealed that despite having no brain or nerves, Physarum polycephalum can compute the shortest route in a maze. Placed in a maze 3 cm square, the organism ordinarily clogs every path by extending itself across them. But if food is placed at the maze’s entrance and exit, it will connect the two points in the shortest possible distance.

The three Japanese scientists sang their acceptance speech at the ceremony, which was hosted by the tongue-in-cheek journal Annals of Improbable Research and was attended by real Nobel prizewinners and an audience of over 1,000 people. Nakagaki expressed his thanks for the award and noted that, despite conventional wisdom, P. polycephalum “is actually smarter than we thought.”

The Ig Nobel prizes are awarded in 10 categories every year by the journal as a humorous version of the real Nobel Prizes.

Japanese scientists have won the award in the past. In 2004, the peace prize went to Daisuke Inoue for inventing karaoke. The following year, Yoshiro Nakamatsu won the nutritional science award for taking photos of every meal he ate for 35 years and analyzing the effects of the food on his brain activity. In 2007, Mayu Yamamoto won the chemistry award for discovering how to extract vanilla flavor from cow dung