We have all heard of the Nobel Prize, one of the most prestigious and coveted prizes in the world. Earlier this month, the Nobel Committee announced the winners for 2020.
But, have you heard of an international prize that’s awarded for not the best in scientific research, but only for the weirdest?
It’s weird but true! There exists a prize called the ‘Ig Nobel Prize’ that is awarded to celebrate unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research. The committee behind the award states that the aim of the prize is to “honour achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.”
Of course, the Ig Nobel is a parody award that is given for humorous purposes to keep things light-hearted in an otherwise very serious field. It perhaps demonstrates that serious scientists also have a sense of humour!
Just like the Nobel Prize, the Ig Nobel prize is also awarded annually and has select categories. But while the Nobel categories are fixed at five – Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Peace, and Literature – the Ig Nobel is slightly more flexible and although some categories are fixed, other categories vary from year to year. What remains constant though is the number of categories, which is always 10.
Over the years, winners of the Ig Nobel prize have thrilled us with some bizarre scientific pursuits. Take, for instance, the Ig Nobel Prize in Physics in 2000. It was awarded to scientists Andre Geim of Radboud University, Netherlands and Michael Berry, University of Bristol, UK, for making a live frog levitate magnetically! A decade later, Geim went on to win the actual Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on graphene, an allotrope of carbon.
Other strange awards range from the statement that black holes fulfil all the technical requirements for being the location of “hell”, to research on the “five-second rule” – a common belief that food dropped on the floor will not become contaminated if it is picked up within five seconds. Interestingly, it was found that when food is dropped on a clean floor, the amount of bacteria transferred from the floor to the food depends on how sticky or wet that food particle is! So the five-second-rule might apply to a potato chip but maybe it could be closer to the two-second-rule for say toffee!
The 2020 Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded a month before the real Nobel Prizes. The ceremony took place on September 17, 2020. But this year, because of the Covid-19 epidemic, the ceremony took place online, instead of the usual location – The Sanders Theatre at Harvard University.
Here are some of the eyebrow-raising Ig Nobel prizes from the 2020 edition:
The Physics Prize went to Ivan Maksymov and Andriy Pototsky, for determining, experimentally, what happens to the shape of a living earthworm when one vibrates the earthworm at high frequency.
The Acoustics Prize was awarded to Stephan Reber, Takeshi Nishimura, Judith Janisch, Mark Robertson, and Tecumseh Fitch, for inducing a female Chinese alligator to bellow in an airtight chamber filled with helium-enriched air!
The Entomology Prize went to Richard Vetter, for collecting evidence that many entomologists (scientists who study insects) are afraid of spiders, which are not insects.
The Physiology Prize was awarded to Miranda Giacomin and Nicholas Rule, for devising a method to identify narcissists (people who think extremely highly of themselves) by examining their eyebrows, thus confirming the stereotype of the ‘high-browed narcissist’!
The Medicine Prize was awarded to Nienke Vulink, Damiaan Denys, and Arnoud van Loon, for diagnosing a long-unrecognized medical condition: Misophonia, the distress at hearing other people make chewing sounds.
In spite of its humorous outlook, the Ig Nobel prize is often presented by some highly established people from the scientific community. The prize is usually handed out by actual winners of the actual Nobel prize.
The Ig Nobel ceremony is also well known for its running jokes. For example, when an award winner takes too long for the acceptance speech, it is common practice to start playing some piece of music to remind the speaker that time is running out. At the Ig Nobel awards, instead of the music, a little girl who goes by the name of “Miss Sweetie Poo” walks out on stage and repeatedly shrieks, “Please stop! I’m bored!”
Another running gag is that the audience is encouraged to throw paper planes onto the stage instead of clapping to show applause! To top it off, every year, one person appointed as the “Keeper of the Broom” sweeps all the paper planes off the stage with a broom. The prestigious post of the Keeper of the Broom was held by American theoretical physicist Professor Roy J Glauber for the longest time. Co-incidentally, Professor Glauber could not attend the Ig Nobel ceremony in 2005 because he was on his way to Sweden to receive the actual Nobel Prize in Physics!
But the Ig Nobel is not always just fun and games. Sometimes, some of the research can have actual, real-world uses. For instance, in 2006, the Ig Nobel in Biology was awarded to Bart Knols for a study showing that one species of malaria-carrying mosquitoes (Anopheles gambiae) is equally attracted to the smell of Limburger cheese and the smell of human feet! As a direct result of Knols’ findings, traps baited with this cheese have been placed strategically in some parts of Africa to combat the epidemic of malaria.
The Ig Nobel awards are a reminder that there is always time for some light-hearted fun, even in the most serious circumstances. It teaches us that learning and fun need not necessarily always be separate pursuits.
Enjoyed reading this? Check out more such fun brain-benders at The Learning Tree.
Have you heard of any other parody awards like the Ig Nobel? Tell us in the comments section below.
Suraj Prabhu is a self-proclaimed audiophile and a jack-of-all-trades writer with a diverse set of interests. An amateur quizzer on the side, he claims that the first object he fell in love with was a book on flags at age 3. His favourite punctuation mark is the 'Oxford comma,' which coincidentally happens to be one of his favourite songs too!
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