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Awards for Absurdity in Research

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Strange Research

You've probably asked yourself on numerous occasions whether or not constipation affects the romantic instincts of scorpions. I know I have. And, while that file is open, you have no doubt puzzled over whether knives made from frozen human feces are good for butchering—hint, they're not. If such conundrums are front of mind, you need to catch up on the Ig Nobel Prizes.

It turns out scorpions can happily mate even though seriously plugged up digestively.

It turns out scorpions can happily mate even though seriously plugged up digestively.

The Ig Nobel Prize

In a satirical mirror of the Nobel Prizes, the Ig Nobel Prizes are handed out every year to “honor achievements that first make people LAUGH, and then make them THINK. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative—and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.”

The genius, if that's the correct word, behind this extravaganza is a fellow called Marc Abrahams. He created the awards from his function as the editor of the magazine The Annals of Improbable Research, which is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard University.

The first prizes were handed out in 1991 and they were awarded for scientific experiments “that cannot, or should not, be reproduced.” A wider net has now been cast to capture lack of achievement in fields such as peace, public health, literature, and interdisciplinary research.

In 2014, Japanese scientists carried off the physics Ig Nobel for determining the frictional coefficient of banana skin. People only slip on the fruit in cartoons.

In 2014, Japanese scientists carried off the physics Ig Nobel for determining the frictional coefficient of banana skin. People only slip on the fruit in cartoons.

The British/Dutch Sir Andre Geim is the only person known to have received an Ig Nobel Prize and a Nobel Prize. The Ig was awarded for levitating a frog by using magnetism. The proper Nobel was for his work with graphene.

The Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony

Ten prizes go to the (un)lucky winners each year. Most laureates accept their awards with grace and humour; a few sourpusses decline. Also, many recipients show up for the awards ceremony, at their own expense, held on the Harvard campus.

Such is the prestige of the event that real Nobel laureates hand out the prizes. These awards are described by Abrahams as “made of cheap materials that are prone to disintegrate. The winners also get a piece of paper that says they have won an Ig Nobel Prize. The paper is signed by those Nobel laureates. It’s a nice piece of paper to have.”

According to organizers, the prize recipients are given the opportunity, in a one-minute speech, “to explain themselves.” If the speakers go over their allotted time, Miss Sweety Poo makes an appearance. She's an adorable eight-year-old girl who says in the squeakiest voice possible “Please stop. I'm bored.”

In 2006, Francis M. Fesmire of the University of Tennessee College of Medicine, was deemed a worthy prize recipient for his case report “Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage.”

Probably those tasked with providing this therapy refer to it as a bummer. Dr. Fesmire's acceptance speech prompted an appearance of Miss Sweety Poo.

The lavish ceremony ends with an encouraging statement: “If you didn't win a prize—and especially if you did—better luck next year.”

Previous Ig Nobel Winners

So, without further ado, here is a random selection of previous Ig Nobel winners. The envelope please:

  • Robert W. Faid of Greenville, South Carolina, got his accolade in 1993 for “calculating the exact odds (710,609,175,188,282,000 to 1) that Mikhail Gorbachev is the Antichrist.”
  • In 1998, two Canadian researchers, Jerald Bain of Toronto's Mt. Sinai Hospital and Kerry Siminoski of the University of Alberta, exploded a myth. After patiently applying measuring tapes to 63 “normally virilized men” (I don't know and I'm not eager to find out, and yes, that's bad journalism) they discovered there is no correlation between height and foot size and penis length.
  • The televangelist Jack Van Impe scored a win in 2001 by proving to his own satisfaction that black holes possess all the astronomical attributes of Hell.
  • Also in 2001, a couple of scientists in Bangalore, India, scored an Ig Nobel for a ground-breaking study showing that among adolescents nose-picking is a common practice.
  • There are an estimated 68 million sheep in Australia, so it's the obvious location for woolly research. In 2003, researchers published their must-read report “An analysis of the forces required to drag sheep over various surfaces.” We have a winner.
  • Arturas Zuokas was the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania in 2012 when he came up with a solution to dealing with those entitled toffs who don't like to obey parking rules. Here's a video of his award-winning approach.
  • 2013 was another banner year for winners. Scientists from South Africa and Sweden joined forces to discover that when dung beetles get lost, they navigate their way home by studying the alignment of stars in the Milky Way. In the field of medicine, Japanese researchers assessed the effect of listening to opera on mice that were heart transplant recipients. These eminent investigators were joined on the honour role by the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko and his state police. The dictator passed a law making public applause illegal; the cops were joint winners because arrested a one-armed man for breaking the ban.
  • Police were in the top ten achievements again in 2014. This time it was Bangkok, Thailand that was honored for offering a pay raise to those officers of the law who refused to take bribes.
  • Numerous scientists collaborated in a 2019 study to find out if magnetized, dead cockroaches behaved differently than live, magnetized roaches. Apparently, the research involved “a highly sensitive quantum sensor, that extends applicability of magnetorelaxometry to biological samples at physiological temperature.” Of course, it did. Without giving away the plot entirely, it appears the dead and living insects behave differently when exposed to magnetorelaxometry and also Raid, one assumes.

It is not entirely clear to an aging writer what the purpose of most of these experiments was except to collect grant money and to publish on the rocky road to tenure.

Bonus Factoids

In the first Ig Nobel Prize celebration in 1991, awards were handed out to three fictional characters. This is the first and only time, so far as we know, that non-existent individuals have been so honored:

  • In physics, Thomas Kyle was a winner for his discovery of administratium, the heaviest known element in the Universe.
  • Paul DeFanti was recognized for inventing the “Buckybonnet” under the little-known pedestrian technology discipline. It was designed to protect the heads of pedestrians, although it's not clear from what. Pigeons perhaps and falling anvils and grand pianos only seem to occur in cartoons.
  • The redoubtable Josiah S. Carberry was the last fictional recipient of an Ig Nobel Prize. Professor Carberry was created in 1929 and still lectures at Brown University about his special area of expertise—psychoceramics, or the study of “cracked pots.” You can read more about Josiah S. Carberry here.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Rupert Taylor