Ig Nobel Prize

the stinker

The Ig Nobel Prizes are a satirical award given each year in early October for ten unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research. The stated aim of the prizes is to ‘first make people laugh, and then make them think.’

Organized by the scientific humor magazine ‘Annals of Improbable Research’ (AIR), they are presented by a group that includes Nobel Laureates at a ceremony at Harvard University’s Sanders Theater, and they are followed by a set of public lectures by the winners at MIT. The name is a play on the words ‘ignoble’ (‘characterized by baseness, lowness, or meanness’) and the Nobel Prize. The pronunciation used during the ceremony is [ig-noh-bel], not like the word ‘ignoble.’

The first Ig Nobels were created in 1991 by Marc Abrahams, editor and co-founder of the AIR, and the Master of Ceremonies at all subsequent awards ceremonies. Awards were presented at that time for discoveries ‘that cannot, or should not, be reproduced.’ Ten prizes are awarded each year in many categories, including the Nobel Prize categories of physics, chemistry, physiology/medicine, literature, and peace, but also other categories such as public health, engineering, biology, and interdisciplinary research. With the exception of three prizes in the first year (Administratium, Josiah Carberry, and Paul DeFanti), the Ig Nobel Prizes are for genuine achievements.

The awards are sometimes veiled criticism (or gentle satire), as in the two awards given for homeopathy research, prizes in ‘science education’ to the Kansas and Colorado state boards of education for their stance regarding the teaching of evolution, and the prize awarded to ‘Social Text’ after the Sokal Affair. Most often, however, they draw attention to scientific articles that have some humorous or unexpected aspect. Examples range from the discovery that the presence of humans tends to sexually arouse ostriches, to the statement that black holes fulfill all the technical requirements to be the location of Hell, to research on the ‘five-second rule’ (a tongue-in-cheek belief that food dropped on the floor will not become contaminated if it is picked up within five seconds). In 2010, Andre Geim became the first person to receive both the Nobel and an individual Ig Nobel prize.

The prize ceremony contains a number of running jokes, including ‘Miss Sweetie Poo,’ a little girl who repeatedly cries out, ‘Please stop: I’m bored,’ in a high-pitched voice if speakers go on too long. The awards ceremony is traditionally closed with the words: ‘If you didn’t win a prize — and especially if you did — better luck next year!’ Throwing paper airplanes onto the stage is also a long-standing tradition. In past years, physics professor Roy Glauber swept the stage clean of the airplanes as the official ‘Keeper of the Broom’ for years. Glauber could not attend the 2005 awards – he was traveling to Stockholm to claim a genuine Nobel Prize in Physics. The ‘Parade of Ignitaries’ brings various supporting groups into the hall. At the 1997 ceremonies, a team of ‘cryogenic sex researchers’ distributed a pamphlet titled ‘Safe Sex at Four Kelvin.’ Delegates from the Museum of Bad Art are often on hand to display some pieces from their collection, showing that bad art and bad science go hand in hand. The ceremony is recorded and broadcast on NPR and is shown live over the Internet. The recording is broadcast every year, on the Friday after Thanksgiving, on the public radio program ‘Science Friday.’ In recognition of this, the audience chants the first name of the radio show’s host, Ira Flatow.

In 1995, Robert May, Baron May of Oxford, at the time the Chief Scientific Adviser to the British government, requested that the organizers no longer award Ig Nobel prizes to British scientists, claiming that the awards risked bringing genuine experiments into ridicule. Many British researchers dismissed Lord May’s pronouncements, and the British journal ‘Chemistry & Industry’ in particular printed an article rebutting his arguments. A 2009 article in ‘The National,’ titled ‘A noble side to Ig Nobels,’ says that although the Ig Nobel Awards are veiled criticism of trivial research, history shows that trivial research sometimes leads to important breakthroughs. For instance, in 2006 a study showing that one of the malaria mosquitoes is attracted equally to the smell of Limburger cheese and the smell of human feet earned the Ig Nobel Prize in the area of biology. As a direct result of these findings traps baited with this cheese have been utilized in strategic locations in some parts of Africa to combat the epidemic of malaria.

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