Feb
17
2009

What is an Ig Nobel Prize?

Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony 2006 (photo by Jeff.Dlouhy - CC-BY)

Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony 2006 (photo by Jeff.Dlouhy - CC-BY)

Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded each year by an organization called Improbable Research. They honor research which first makes you laugh, then makes you think. Serious research about oddball topics, in other words. They like to celebrate the unusual and imaginative, and get people interested in science and technology, by honoring real achievements that are interesting and amusing.

As you can tell by the name, it’s a parody of the respected Nobel prizes. As with the Nobel prizes, each Ig Noble Prize is also associated with a field of study.

An archetypal example is Brian Wansink. He tested people’s apetite for mindless eating, to see what made them stop. And how did he do it? He fed them a bowl of soup, but a very special bowl. As people ate, the bowl was constantly refilled from underneath. For his trouble, he won the 2007 Ig Nobel Prize for Nutrition.

There is an Ig Nobel winner in my family. My sister Glenda Browne won the 2007 award for Literature, with her study of how to index terms that start with the word “the” (like the pop group “The The”).

These were the 2008 winners:

  • Astolfo de Mello Araujo and Jose Marcelino showed that armadillos can mess up the record of an archeological site (Archaeology)
  • Marie-Christine Cadiergues, Christel Joubert, and Michel Franc showed that dog fleas jump higher than cat fleas (Biology)
  • Toshiyuki Nakagaki, Hiroyasu Yamada, Ryo Kobayashi, Atsushi Tero, Akio Ishiguro, and Ágota Tóth discovered that slime molds can solve mazes (Cognitive Science)
  • Geoffrey Miller, Joshua Tyber, and Brent Jordan discovered that exotic dancers earn more at their time of peak fertility (Economics)
  • David Sims narrated the experience of indignation within organizations in a study titled “You Bastard” (Literature)
  • Dan Ariely showed that cheap placebos don’t work as well as expensive placebos (Medicine)
  • Massimiliano Zampini and Charles Spence showed that food with an appealing description tastes better (Nutrition)
  • The Swiss Federal Ethics Committee adopted the legal principle that plants have dignity (Peace)
  • Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith proved that hair and string will inevitably tangle (Physics)

The awards are presented in a bizarre ceremony at Harvard University. Each award is presented by a genuine Nobel Laureate, and the presentation features amusing interludes. There are always entertaining guest stars, for example one year Russell Johnson took part. You may know him as the Professor from Gilligan’s Island.

If there was a category for Spoilsports, it would be tempting to award the prize to Robert May who in 1996 asked that no more Ig Nobel prizes be awarded to British scientists in case it harmed their career prospects. Previous British winners have studied the pain of different methods of execution, and the physics of dunking biscuits.

Despite Robert May’s plea (or perhaps because of it) he was appointed Knight Bachelor. Just to show that he did have a sense of humor after all, when he was appointed a life peer of the UK House of Lords he asked to be known as Baron May of Wollahra (a suburb of Sydney), but settled instead for Baron May of Oxford.

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1 Comment

  • Not to be confused with the hoax research published in the Journal of Irreproducible Results. As a professional indexer (who already knows how to index terms starting with “the”), I applaud your sister!

    Cheers,
    Carol Roberts

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