The Ig Nobel Prize: Science's silly side

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The Ig Nobel Prize: Science's silly side
Scientists show their fun side at the Ig Nobels. (Getty Thinkstock)

British institutions have been more openly welcoming to this kind of thing than American institutions. In the US the tradition is that science is a very *earnest* undertaking, Benjamin Franklin and Richard Feynman being the great exceptions. In Britain, deadpan humour is part of the fabric.

— Marc Abrahams – Founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes

From the physics of dunking biscuits to the brain activity of dead salmon, the Ig Nobel Prize is all about scientific studies that “first make people laugh, then make them think.” Science isn’t all about complex maps of the human genome and the intricate debris leftover from smashing protons together in futuristic machinery; the Ig Nobel Prize reminds us that the magnifying glass of science can be turned to any topic. You might think that levitating frogs, pony-tail physics and wasabi alarms are ridiculous, but the science behind them is very real – and absurdly fascinating.

What are the Ig Nobels?

The Ig Nobel Prize: Science's silly side
"If at first an idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it" - Albert Einstein. (Mario Tama/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images)

In essence, the Ig Nobel Prize is an obvious spoof of the Nobel Prize, but it isn’t really as simple as that. The prize was started in 1991by Marc Abrahams, the co-founder of the Annals of Improbable Research, or the magazine which operates the prizes. Although it’s easier to call it a spoof of the Nobel Prize, you can’t just win an Ig by spending your valuable time investigating the absurd – it has to be something actually interesting. The prizes are handed out by real Nobel laureates, and they are only awarded for good science. Basically, you have to accomplish something impressive perfectly disguised as something idiotic. It’s like the Columbo of science awards.

The Ig Nobel Prizes marry the world of science with the bizarre, and the ceremony arguably has more commercial appeal than the real Nobel Prizes for that reason. Amanda Palmer, a musician who performed at the 2010 Ig Nobels, sums up the unusual side of the Ig Nobels perfectly, “It's like the weirdest f-ing thing that you'll ever go to... it's a collection of, like, actual Nobel Prize winners giving away prizes to real scientists for doing f'd-up things... it's awesome.” The journal Nature attested to their popularity, stating that the Ig Nobels “are arguably the highlight of the scientific calendar.”

There are 10 Ig Nobel Prizes awarded each year, in the fields such as anatomy, medicine, physics, chemistry, mathematics, literature and the Peace Prize. This is very much like the real Nobel Prizes, but the fields in which the prizes are awarded can differ – for example, this year saw a prize in fluid dynamics. The more genuine side of the Igs is obvious from the fact that all the research is published in real peer-reviewed journals and aims to solve real-world problems. The award ceremony is held at the Sanders Theatre in Harvard University, and each winner only has 60 seconds to explain their research – they get much longer at a companion event a week later.

Ig Nobel Laureates

The Ig Nobel Prize: Science's silly side
Without the Ig Nobels, everybody would assume that this woman knew how to dunk a biscuit. (Vision SRL/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

Winning an Ig Nobel Prize is far from an insult; unlike the real Nobels (which cover your travel expenses), scientists part with their own money to attend the event and receive their award. The media pays a lot of attention to some Ig Nobel winners, and for those in relatively thankless fields this can be evidently welcomed. The winner of the 2012 Ig Nobel Prize for Physics, Dr. Patrick Warren (who studied the physics of pony tails for Unilever), said “I'm amazed that a piece of work I've done has attracted so much attention.”

Finding out about past winners can really help you understand the genuinely interesting aspects of things which initially sound ridiculous. Scanning dead salmon for brain activity is something you’d expect a mischievous child to do if they were left with an MRI machine and some unwanted dinner, but the 2012 neuroscience prize was awarded for just that. It was actually intended to show the risks of chance signals on brain scans; a much anticipated follow-up to their work on pumpkins and a Cornish hen.

Craig Bennett, one of the lead researchers, explained that “If you have a 1% chance of hitting a bullseye when playing darts and you throw one dart, then you have a 1% chance of hitting the target. If you have 30,000 darts then, well, let's just say that you are probably going to hit the target a few times. The same is true in neuroimaging.”

Len Fisher won the Ig Nobel Prize for Physics in 1999 for his work on the best way to dunk a biscuit in a cup of tea or coffee. He found that since biscuits were just lumps of starch stuck together with sugar, a dunker is left with a “race between the dissolving of the sugar and your biscuit falling apart and a swelling of the starch grains so that they stick together.” In short, he found that dunking the biscuit almost parallel to the surface of the liquid is the best approach, and that chocolate biscuits are naturally better for dunking because the delicious coating acts like extra biscuit-glue.

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