The Ig Nobel Awards: The Science Prize that Rewards the Weird and Wonderful

Winning the Nobel Prize is the pinnacle of a scientist’s career. It is the ultimate reward for years of labour and hard work. They slave away in dimly lit rooms, the lack of sunlight forcing them dangerously close to developing rickets. They peer into microscopes for hours on end, their only friend being the harsh blue light from their computer screens.

The million dollars that the Nobel Prize offers is just reward for scientists’ desire to make a difference and further human knowledge. It also allows their often niche subjects some much needed time in the limelight.

Last year’s Nobel prize for physics went to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert for their theorising of the Higgs Boson in the 1960s and its discovery in the summer of 2013. This was one of the rare scientific stories that crossed the barrier between the scientific community and the wider world. The Large Hadron Collider in CERN captured our imaginations and allowed science to blast its way onto our front pages.

The CERN Hadron Collider smashes protons together at great energies. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
The CERN Hadron Collider smashes protons together at great energies.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The scope for science is almost endless, leaving room for eccentric areas of research that may not have the same importance, but are interesting nonetheless. These areas of science won’t win Nobel Prizes but still deserve recognition for the sheer inspiration and thought that goes into them.

The Ig Nobel awards are given for quirky research that really makes you think. Science journal Nature even went as far to describe them as ‘arguably the highlight of the scientific calendar’. The inaugural awards were held in 1991, a year in which the Ig Nobel award for Biology was given to Robert Klark Graham for his development of a sperm bank that only accepts donations from Nobel laureates and Olympians.

Over the years the awards have expanded and the subjects have varied, presumably to keep up with the wide array of crazy research being churned out by groups worldwide. These are the genius minds that find themselves so immersed in their subject that they, and only they, have the ability to ask such seemingly mundane but actually exciting questions.

Have you ever wondered how easy it is to tell the difference between someone speaking Japanese backwards and someone speaking Dutch backwards? This burning question was tested on rats and resulted in the Ig Nobel prize for Linguistics in 2007 being awarded to a team at the Universitad de Barcelona.

Other such highlights over the years include questions such as ‘Why do pregnant women not tip over?’ (Physics Award 2009) and ‘Are cows more likely to lie down the longer they stand up?’ (Probability Award 2013, with the answer being: nobody knows).

The award for medicine in 2005 went to Gregg A. Miller of Oak Grove Missouri, for inventing ‘Neuticles’, artificial replacement testicles for dogs that come in three sizes and three levels of firmness. They may sound useless, but who knows the psychological affect the reappearance of testicles can have on a dog’s self-esteem? There’s probably some room here for a follow up Ig Nobel prize for animal behaviourists.

These may appear pointless and fun but let’s not forget that the winners of these awards are serious scientists. The Ig Nobel awards also make us think by showing us a seemingly innocent story that demonstrates a more thoughtful result.

The Neuroscience prize for 2012 went to a group led by Craig Bennett (USA), who showed that by using complicated instruments and simple statistics, it’s possible to see meaningful brain activity anywhere, even in a dead salmon. Hang on there, how can a dead salmon show brain activity? This just shows that if you manipulate statistics or equipment smartly and effectively, you can show pretty much anything you want.

While being predominantly geared towards science, the awards try to recognise meaninglessly brilliant achievements in areas of economics, literature and peace as well, much like the actual Nobel Prizes.

On September 18th this year, the Economic Ig Nobel prize was one of the more inspired awards and interestingly went to the Italian government’s National Institute for Statistics. Under pressure from the European Union to demonstrate economic growth, they decided to include revenues from prostitution, the illegal drugs trade, smuggling and other unlawful financial transactions. If every country were to do this we could expect to see economic growth popping up all over the place. A round of applause for the Italian government please.

One of this year's winners looked at the way the human brain responds to images of Jesus in toast. (Image: Photobucket)
One of this year’s winners looked at the way the human brain responds to images of Jesus in toast.
(Image: Photobucket)

This year’s other winners tested the friction between a banana skin, a shoe and the floor, and compared the frictions of various other fruit skins (Physics); asked the question of what happens to the human brain when people see the face of Jesus on a piece of toast (Neuroscience); treated uncontrollable nose-bleeds by picking them with strips of cured pork (Medicine); and tested how reindeer react to seeing humans who are disguised as polar bears, with the latter being the first and probably not the last award in field of arctic science.

Below is a full list of the 2014 winners and aren’t they fun.

Physics: Kiyoshi Mabuchi, Kensei Tanaka, Daichi Uchijima and Rina Sakai, for measuring the coefficient of friction between a shoe, a banana skin and the floor when a person steps on a banana skin.

Neuroscience: Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, and Kang Lee, for trying to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast.

Psychology: Peter K. Jonason, Amy Jones, and Minna Lyons, showing that people who stay up later are, on average, more self-admiring, more manipulative, and more psychopathic than people who get up early in the morning.

Public health: Jaroslav Flegr, Jan Havlíček and Jitka Hanušova-Lindova, and to David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan, Lisa Seyfried, for investigating whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat.

Biology: Vlastimil Hart, Petra Nováková, Erich Pascal Malkemper, Sabine Begall, Vladimír Hanzal, Miloš Ježek, Tomáš Kušta, Veronika Němcová, Jana Adámková, Kateřina Benediktová, Jaroslav Červený and Hynek Burda, for finding out that when dogs defecate and urinate, they prefer to align their body axis with Earth’s north-south geomagnetic field lines.

Art: Marina de Tommaso, Michele Sardaro, and Paolo Livrea, for comparing the relative pain a person feels from a powerful laser beam while looking at an ugly or pretty painting.

Economics: ISTAT — the Italian government’s National Institute of Statistics, for including revenue from prostitution, illegal drug sales, smuggling and other illegal financial transactions in their national economy to demonstrate an increase in economic size.

Medicine: Ian Humphreys, Sonal Saraiya, Walter Belenky and James Dworkin, for treating “uncontrollable” nosebleeds, using the method of nasal-packing-with-strips-of-cured-pork

Arctic Science: Eigil Reimers and Sindre Eftestøl, for testing how reindeer react to seeing humans who are disguised as polar bears.

Nutrition: Raquel Rubio, Anna Jofré, Belén Martín, Teresa Aymerich, and Margarita Garriga, for their study titled “Characterization of Lactic Acid Bacteria Isolated from Infant Faeces as Potential Probiotic Starter Cultures for Fermented Sausages.”


Michael Owen

Main image courtesy of Tryangle (FR)

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