The Ig Nobel Prize: Showing Serious Science can be Funny

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The Ig Nobel Prize Mascot

“The Strinker” is the official mascot of the Ig Nobel Prize. Image by Improbable Research

There are few prizes that generate as much interest as the Nobel Prize – but around the same time every October that the real Nobel Prizes come out, science pokes fun at itself in the form of the Ig Nobel Prize. The Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) awards the Prize; AIR is a humorous scientific bi-monthly magazine that pokes fun at the standard academic journal for achievements “that first make people laugh, then make them think.”

AIR usually showcases at least one article on strange or unexpected scientific research, and most articles are about real or fictional absurd experiments. So it is not surprising that the prize’s fictional origins are equally absurd.

The award is ostensibly named after Ignatius “Ig” Nobel, co-inventor of soda pop, inventor of excelsior (a packing material) and distant cousin of Alfred Nobel, TNT discoverer and the creator of the namesake Nobel prizes.

Ignatius’ fascination with everything that went “pop” led him to study the bubbles in his fizzy drinks. After 17 years of careful observation, Ig discovered that no two bubbles followed the same path from bottom to top. This achievement was never reproduced. Though he wasn’t as famous and wealthy as his cousin, Ig created his prize to recognize individuals whose achievements cannot or should not be reproduced.

The Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony

In reality, Marc Abrahams, editor and co-founder of AIR and Master of Ceremonies of the award ceremony, created the Ig Nobel Prize in 1991. Although each of the ten prizes generally recognize real achievements, awards can at times be veiled criticism or satire, as is the case of the 2004 Ig Nobel in Chemistry to the Coca-Cola Company of Great Britain for using a “highly sophisticated purification process” to convert pure tap water into a bromate-contaminated product that Coca-Cola had to recall from the shelves of stores.

Anyone can nominate their favorite scientist for the prize and as a result, the magazine receives more than 9000 new entries every year. The Ig Nobel Board of Governors adds these new entries to the already-enormous pool from previous years, and selects ten new winners. The Board also allows self-nominations, and as many as 10-20% of entries each year are from people nominating themselves.

Genuine Nobel laureates present the prizes, and the Board holds the annual ceremony at Harvard University’s Sanders Theater. Every year, the award ceremony features a few running gags and comical traditions, keeping in line with the magazine’s humorous look at science. The ceremony starts with the audience throwing paper airplanes onto the stage – directing them at the designated winners. Harvard physics professor and 2005 Physics Nobel laureate Roy Glauber are the official “Keepers of the Broom.”

Ig Nobel Psychology 2013

Miss Sweetie Poo protests the extra long speech by the 2013 Ig Nobel in Psychology Prize winner who took to the stage with guitar and harmonica. The group’s work showed that drunk people think they are more attractive than they really are. Photo by Mike Benveniste, Annals of Improbable Research, used with permission, all rights reserved.

Each recipient of the Ig Nobel receives sixty seconds to explain what they did and why and how they did it. As presenters the world over are wont to go over the time limit, the Ig Nobel award ceremony have solved this problem in the form of Miss Sweetie Poo, the eight year old time keeper whose role is to ensure presentations are both short and sweet. Whenever Miss Sweetie Poo feels that a speaker has talked long enough, she goes up to the person and continuously shouts “Please stop! I’m bored!” until the speaker stops.

The award ceremony also puts on science-related mini-operas based on the award ceremony’s theme; Nobel Laureates play feature roles. Past themes included:

  • “Chemistry,” which featured an opera with a singing chemist and baristas on the chemistry of coffee.
  • “Inertia,” an operatic story of a boy as he attempts to befriend two sisters, one of whom is always moving while the other never does.
  • “Diet” that operatically explains the science, or rather lack of, in the Atkins Diet.

Making Science Interesting by Poking Fun

The Nobel Prize, one of the highest possible awards for humanitarian and scientific achievement, gets little attention compared to the Oscars, the Grammies or even the MTV Music Awards. Although it seems strange that scientists would want to poke fun at themselves given the public’s lack of interest, the aim of the Ig Nobel is far from this.

The Igs are intended to “celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative and spur people’s interest in science.” It is often the seemingly-frivolous that gets people’s attention, but just because it seems silly or impractical doesn’t mean it is.

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