The Ig Nobels: The Lighter Side of Scientific Research

Cat playing Peek a Boo in a box
This cat is definitely alive. Science is still trying to figure out if it's a liquid or a solid, though.
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It’s that time of year again, when scientists from around the world gather to receive awards for the most groundbreaking, meaningful, and important scientific discoveries of the year. But this award is no Nobel Prize. These are the Ig Nobels, a ceremony devoted to the lighter side of science. Some of this year’s winners examined such vital topics as the fluid dynamics of cats, how to cure snoring with a didgeridoo, and the effect of crocodiles on gambling preferences. Uh, what?

The Ig Nobels were started in 1991 to highlight research that “can’t and shouldn’t be reproduced.”

The concept behind the Ignobel Prize (The Igs) began in 1955 with the Journal of Irreproducible Results, a science humor magazine. Publishing and sales problems led to a temporary end to the journal in 1994 (it now continues with a new publisher) but it was replaced with a successor, the Annals of Improbable Results. The Journal and subsequently the Annals share the stated goal of proving that research can be fun and interesting at the same time. Most of the research is culled from the general scientific literature, but the Annals also publishes some original results.

The Igs were started in 1991 to highlight some of the best of the fun science—the research that “can’t and shouldn’t be reproduced.” Good-natured, actual Nobel Prize winners hand out the awards to the lucky winners. One of the earliest winners was Vice President Dan Quayle, “consumer of time and occupier of space,” for proving that politicians really should have science education.

Sexual references are quite common in the Annals, and among Ig nominees. An entry from 1997, originally published in the Journal of Urology, has the memorable title “Re-establishment of Male Sexual Function and Appearance 23 Years After Alligator Induced Traumatic Orchiectomy and Penile Lacerations.” (Translation: Miraculous recovery decades after an alligator bite to a man’s nether regions.) There are several entries like that—not exactly funny, but definitely not reproducible. (FYI, apparently you can contract gonorrhea from a blow-up doll. But no one recommends trying to reproduce those particular results.)

There are no set categories. The 1994 prize for literature went to a paper that had 972 authors; each author contributed exactly two words to the finished manuscript. The anatomy prize that year demonstrated that chimpanzees can recognize each other from photos. Of each others’ butts.

The Annals have wide readership. A raid on a terrorist safe house in Afghanistan found blueprints for a nuclear bomb made with plutonium and rubber cement. The design was a joke from a 1979 issue of the journal, but it isn’t clear whether the would-be bombers knew that or not.

Some of the most interesting entries are those that test something odd but well-known. For example, one winner used his own fingers to prove that cracking knuckles is harmless. Another classic entry took aim at the rhetorical trick of comparing apples and oranges. A study comparing apples and oranges was originally published in the Annals and then accidentally recreated years later in BMJ. The researcher (a) found a standardized method for comparing the two fruits using a mass spectrometer and then (b) compared them. The result? Apples and oranges are really not very different. The work did not win an Ig, alas, but it makes you think. Which is really the point.


JSTOR Citations

Reviewed Work(s): The Best of Annals of Improbable Research by Marc Abrahams

By: Sanjay A. Pai

Current Science, Vol. 77, No. 12 (25 December 1999), p. 1688

Current Science Association

Papers You Might Have Missed

By: Randy Moore

The American Biology Teacher, Vol. 59, No. 8 (Oct., 1997), pp. 468-469

University of California Press on behalf of the National Association of Biology Teachers

Apples And Oranges Have Previously Been Shown To Be Remarkably Similar

By: Marc Abrahams

BMJ, British Medical Journal, Vol. 322, No. 7291 (Apr. 14, 2001), p. 931

BMJ

Random Samples

Science, New Series, Vol. 294, No. 5548 (Nov. 30, 2001), p. 1823

American Association for the Advancement of Science

The Nobel Prizes: The Fringe Festival

By: Bernard Dixon

BMJ: British Medical Journal, Vol. 309, No. 6961 (Oct. 22, 1994), p. 1064

BMJ

Colonic explosions and chimpanzees' rear ends: this year's Ig Nobel prizes

By: Elizabeth Loder

BMJ: British Medical Journal, Vol. 345, No. 7876 (29 September 2012), p. 5

BMJ

James MacDonald

James MacDonald received a BS in Environmental Biology from Columbia and a PhD in Ecology and Evolution from Rutgers University, spending 4 years in Central America collecting data on fish in mangrove forests. His research has been published in scholarly journals such as Estuaries and Coasts and Biological Invasions. He currently works in fisheries management and outreach in New York.

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