Does body size affect duration of urination? What are the biomedical benefits and consequences of intense kissing? Can you unboil an egg?
Believe it or not, these are internationally acclaimed, award-winning research topics in physics, medicine, and chemistry. They did not quite meet the criteria for the Nobel Prize, but were honored at the 25th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony on September 17, 2015. Led by Marc Abrahams, editor and cofounder of the magazine Annals of Improbable Research, the ceremony honors “achievements that make people laugh, then think — in that order,” according to the Improbable Research website.
The Ig Nobel Prize aims to increase public interest in scientific endeavors by highlighting research that is entertaining, eccentric, and thought-provoking to scientists and nonscientists alike. Nonscientists may scratch their heads over the shear-stress-mediated refolding of proteins (Yuan et al. 2015) but chuckle at the prospect of unboiling an egg. The research may have practical purposes (developing a better mosquito trap to combat malaria) or may simply be amusing (evidence that dogs align their bodies with Earth’s geomagnetic axes during elimination). Whichever, the prize indicates that the researchers “have done something,” but avoids stating whether this something will advance scientific knowledge.
Celebration of the Eccentric
The first Ig Nobel Prize ceremony was held in 1991 in a lecture hall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (the ceremony was later moved to Harvard University’s Sanders Theater), with Abrahams as the first — and current — master of ceremonies. Each year, 10 prizes are awarded in several subjects, including some classic Nobel Prize categories (physics, chemistry, and physiology/medicine) and some non-Nobel categories (public health, biology, and engineering). With the exception of the fictitious scientists Josiah S. Carberry, Paul DeFanti, and Thomas Kyle at the first ceremony, all prizes have been awarded to real researchers with genuine (albeit sometimes trivial) discoveries.
Whereas the true Nobel Prize celebrates breakthrough advances that are often difficult for the general public to understand, the Ig Nobel Prizes recognize entertaining, often eccentric, research. The 2014 Nobel Prize in physics rewarded a group of Japanese scientists for discovering an energy-efficient blue light-emitting diode. By contrast, the 2014 Ig Nobel Prize in physics rewarded a (different) Japanese group for measuring the amount of friction between a shoe and a banana peel and the banana peel and the floor (Mabuchi et al. 2012).
“Good achievements can also be odd, funny, and even absurd,” states the Ig Nobel Awards website, improbable.com. “So can bad achievements. A lot of good science gets attacked because of its absurdity. A lot of bad science gets revered despite its absurdity.”
Indeed, some of the award-winning studies seem silly — just how important is the frictional coefficient between a banana peel and a shoe? Historically however, many major advances have come from research of seemingly trivial questions. Some early examples include Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity after observing an apple fall from a tree in his mother’s garden and Blaise Pascal’s establishment of probability theory while investigating how best to win a game of dice. More recently, the 2006 Ig winners in biology showed that malaria mosquitos are equally attracted to Limburger cheese and human feet (Knols and De Jong 1996). These findings were used to develop traps containing the cheese, which were used in Africa to manage a malaria epidemic.
One researcher has even won both an Ig Nobel and a Nobel Prize. In 2000, Andre Geim from the University of Manchester won an Ig Nobel Prize in physics for using magnets to levitate a frog. Ten years later, he received a Nobel Prize for his research on the properties of graphene, an ultra-thin form of carbon. Geim admitted that his Nobel Prize-winning graphene creation originated from what he calls Friday Night Experiments, crazy investigations that might or might not work, which supports the idea that major advances can result from apparently frivolous pursuits.
Ceremony or Circus?
The ceremony takes place a few days before the announcement of the real Nobel Prizes, with true Nobel laureates handing out the awards. However, the Ig Nobel ceremony is decidedly less formal than that for the Nobel Prize (the lack of attendance by the king of Sweden is the first indication of this!). The honored researchers travel from around the world (at their own expense, of course) to attend the gala at the Sanders Theater. The ceremony opens with a Paper Airplane Deluge in which members of the audience throw paper airplanes at the stage. Human spotlights, people wearing silver body paint and holding flashlights, serve as stage lighting. Abrahams wears a decaying top hat that is “approximately 50 percent” duct tape and warns the speakers to keep their acceptance speeches short (less than 60 seconds) to avoid triggering the whiny voice of an 8-year-old girl named Miss Sweetie Poo. If an award winner dares exceed the time limit, the pigtailed Miss Sweetie Poo walks across the stage, looks up at the person, and repeats, “Please stop. I’m bored. Please stop. I’m bored” until the speaker stops speaking. According to Abrahams, her presence is much more effective than a lion whip for taming the humans.
And the prize itself? According to Abrahams, it is “made of cheap materials that are prone to disintegrate.” The 2015 prize was a potted plant without the plant and a Zimbabwean $10 trillion dollar bill. Winners also receive a piece of paper, signed by the genuine Nobel laureates in attendance, stating that they have won an Ig Nobel Prize.
“It’s a nice paper to have,” said Abrahams in a 2012 article.
A Reward for Doing Something
What types of research win the Ig Nobel Prize? The criterion is simple and generic, “achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced,” and therefore allows a wide variety of studies to qualify. The Ig Nobel board of governors, a committee of scientists — including previous Ig Nobel Prize winners and Nobel Prize winners — science writers, athletes, public officials, and “other individuals of greater or lesser eminence,” deliberates over the numerous nominations for several days. By tradition, the board recruits a random passerby on the final day to provide balance to the decision-making process.
Each year, the committee receives approximately 9,000 new nominations, 10–20% of them self-nominations, which they add to the pool of nominees from previous years. After narrowing the list to a group of finalists, the board investigates each finalist to determine whether he, she, or they 1) exist, and 2) have done what the nomination claims. After these criteria are verified, the board notifies the winners privately and gives them the opportunity to (quietly) decline the honor. However, most choose to accept the award and attend the ceremony and related events.
The Ig Nobel Prize also distinguishes itself from other prizes by eliminating the distinction between “good” and “bad” in its assessment of the research. Instead, the prize honors the “great muddle in which most of us exist much of the time,” according to Abrahams.
“If you win one, it signifies to one and all that you have done something,” said Abrahams in a 1999 article. “Whether your achievement is for the public good or bad may be difficult or even painful to explain. But the fact is, you did it, and have been recognized for doing it. Let others make of that recognition what they will.”
The Ig Nobel Prize: An Ignoble Pursuit?
The name of the award is a pun on the word ignoble, which oxforddictionaries.com defines as “not honorable in character or purpose.” Although the award intends to be harmless and slightly self-deprecating, the Ig Nobel Prizes occasionally identify and stimulate controversy. The 1999 science education prize to the Kansas and Colorado State Boards of Education was a not-so-subtle criticism of their recently amended policies on teaching evolution in the classroom. The 1995 physics prize, awarded to a British group for investigating the sogginess of breakfast cereal in milk (Georget DMR et al. 1994), created public controversy among local journalists who believed taxpayer money had been used to fund the research. The research was actually underwritten by a leading cereal-maker in the UK, which intended to use the data to develop breakfast cereal that stays crunchy in milk. Nevertheless, Sir Robert May, the Government Chief Scientific Adviser in Britain at the time, asked the organizers to stop awarding Ig Nobel Prizes to UK researchers (who had been well represented at previous Ig ceremonies).
Most of the time however, researchers happily accept their Ig Nobel Prize and join the ceremony. Some individuals or groups lobby hard to receive Ig Nobel recognition, although most such pleas are unsuccessful. In fact, only one such effort has been rewarded: Anders Barheim and Hogne Sandvik, the 1996 prize winners for biology (Barheim and Sandvik 1994).
Significance of Winning: Decided by the Observer, Not the Prize
Despite the occasional detractor, the Ig Nobel awards succeed at adding humor to and acknowledging eccentricity in the sometimes esoteric world of science. How Ig-recognized research promotes the public good is often unclear at first, likely because this is not the focus of the award. The Ig Nobel Prize gives research with potential breakthrough status an opportunity for recognition. The observer, not the prize, judges the significance of the research, which, according to Abrahams, makes the prizes useful in a “very nice, and very powerful, way.” Ig Nobel Prize–winning research might combat mosquito-borne disease or lead to a “real” Nobel Prize. Or it might just tell you why your dog takes so long on his pit stops.
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