Not Your Grandma’s Nobel Prize

For the past 23 years, esteemed researchers have congregated at the prestigious Harvard University for an annual award ceremony. The audience, presenters, and awardees include previous Nobel Prize winners and venerated scientists. The research performed by these scientists will be covered extensively by the media and reported on all over the world. Surely, such a grand event would bestow a great honor upon award recipients. That is not the intention for the Ig Nobel prize, a parody of the Nobel Prize that honors research that “first makes people laugh and then makes them think”.

The Ig Nobel Prize (also derived from the word ignoble, meaning unworthy) is a satirical event hosted by the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR). To give a brief background of what AIR values, check out this paper that addresses the inaccessibility of scientific research. While the Ig Nobel Ceremonies often include social commentary similar to that contained in the abovementioned paper, the event more often revolves around research that is funny (intentionally or unintentionally) and attempts to highlight how seemingly trivial research may be worthy of exploration.

The Ceremony

The ceremony is held each year in September and fills over 1000 seats at Harvard’s Sander Theater. Winners must attend at their own expense (and often do!), and Nobel Laureates are invited to confer awards to their “honored” colleagues. The awardees are then permitted to give a brief lecture and explanation of their research, just like if they had won a real Nobel Prize – except after 60 seconds a young girl begins shouting in a high-pitched voice, “Please stop: I’m bored!” Other repeated gags include launching paper airplanes onto the stage, which are then cleaned up by “Keeper of the Broom” Roy Glauber (who missed the 2005 Ig Nobel ceremonies; he was in Stockholm receiving the real Nobel Prize in Physics).

Useful Research?

Tax-paying citizens may be appalled when considering that taxpayer dollars are being spent on such wasteful research, and historically, people have wondered. In 1995, citizens of the UK were prompted to ask why their money was being spent on trivial research when a team of British researchers won the Ig Nobel in Physics for their research on why breakfast cereal goes soggy. Throw all assumptions out the window, though; this research was funded by a major cereal producer, who was genuinely interested in making crunchier cereal for consumers.

One winner from 2013 determined that the probability of a cow standing up after it lies down increases the longer it has lied down, while the probability of a cow lying down after standing does not change over time. As silly as this may sound, the undertaking of this research could help ranchers easily identify if one of their herd is injured, since an injured cow would seem to be more likely to lie down. The research did not make any definitive statements, but it will be useful to future researchers attempting to tackle the same problem. So while the research done by Ig Nobel winners may seem superfluous, it appears that a lot of the work is significant and has real-world applications. It’s important to keep this in mind when evaluating the quality of research, especially when judging the work based on the intentionally amusing summaries given by the Ig Nobel team.

Astounding Discoveries from Trivial Beginnings

To further drive this point home, there have been many historical discoveries that had humble – even trivial – beginnings. Pierre de Fermat and Blaise Pascal are considered the joint founders of modern probability theory, the widely-studied branch of mathematics concerned with probability. Fermat’s first rigorous proof and implementation of probability theory was to demonstrate to a professional gambler why betting on one six in four dice throws would ensure long term winnings but betting on double-sixes in twenty-four dice throws would result in an overall loss. This trivial proof has galvanized researchers to investigate an entirely new field of mathematics.

The first ideas of game theory, now used by military strategists, psychologists, economists, and governments, originated from Emile Borel’s research in mathematics. Borel’s only interest at the time was how to minimize his losses in poker, even when dealt terrible hands. He did not rigorously prove his theorem, but his seemingly insignificant pursuits enabled others to prove his ideas. On an unrelated note (but in true Ig Nobel spirit), Borel is also known for proposing the thought experiment that asks if a million monkeys typing ten hours per day would ever produce the works of Shakespeare (i.e., Infinite monkey theorem).

Interesting Ig Nobel Winners

To conclude, a short list of some interesting or funny Ig Nobel winners, some of which can be appreciated for their real world applicability and some of which should be appreciated purely for their intrinsic entertainment value.

Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith won the Ig Nobel in Physics for demonstrating that string, wires, and hair will inevitably tangle themselves up in knots. This phenomenon is actually observed in DNA, and the mathematics outlined by Raymer and Smith help biochemists understand the undesirable tangling that prevents a correct reading of the genetic code.

The physics award was won by Andre Geim and Sir Michael Berry for their collaboration that involved using magnets to levitate a frog. Geim actually won a bona fide Nobel Prize ten years later – for another research project, of course (specifically, his work on graphene).

The Ig Nobel Prize in Biology was won by researchers that demonstrated that the female malaria mosquito is attracted to limburger cheese as much as it is attracted to the smell of human feet. This is another quizzical study, but its findings are already being applied. Traps baited with cheese have been used to combat the spread of malaria in Africa.

I won’t spoil this one for those who have not seen the video, but Daniel Simons from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Christopher Chabris of Harvard University won an Ig Nobel in Psychology for the research related to this video. Click the link to see if you fit their hypothesis or not.

It might not be surprising to those who have heard of castoreum (not for the squeamish), but researchers from Japan discovered a method of extracting vanillin from cow dung. They won the Ig Nobel in Chemistry for their results.

One satirical prize went to the Eclaireurs de France, a French scouting association, won the 1992 Archaeology award when they inadvertently erased two prehistoric cave paintings while attempting to remove modern graffiti.

Robert Matthews won the prize in 1996 for his studies on Murphy’s Law; specifically, he demonstrated that toast often falls on the buttered side.

Mark Hostetler of the University of Florida wrote a book titled “That Gunk on Your Car”, where he demonstrated how to identify insects by the splats they make on car windshields. He won the Ig Nobel Prize in Entomology for his efforts.

Arnd Leike from the University of Munich must have spent long hours in lab while demonstrating that beer froth obeys the mathematical Law of Exponential Decay. His hard work was honored with the Ig Nobel in physics in 2002.

With over 23 years of awards, there have been hundreds more entertaining Ig Nobel prizes given, all of which can be found at the Ig Nobel website. Hopefully, these select few were enjoyable. If you find any more entertaining bits of science, post here in the comments.


One thought on “Not Your Grandma’s Nobel Prize

  1. Pingback: Explaining the Mundane | Material World

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