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The Ig Nobel Prize Turns 25

Celebrating a quarter-century of the goofiest work in science

(BRIAN SNYDER/Reuters/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

For the past 114 years, the Nobel Prize has honored scientific work that pushes humanity forward “for the greatest benefit of mankind.” And for the last 25 years the Ig Nobel Prize has honored the work that really matters: how to partially unboil an egg, for example, or how long it takes for mammals to urinate (about 21 seconds, give or take).

Since 1991, the Ig Nobel Prizes have celebrated the goofy side of science, a class clown to the more straightlaced Nobel Prize, honoring scientific work that “first [makes] people laugh, and then [makes] them think,” founder Marc Abrahams tells Christine Russell for Scientific American. While some of the studies that walk away with an “Ig” each year may sound too ridiculous to be real they are, in fact, published, peer-reviewed studies.

“I have always been interested in things that are funny in a way that makes you pay attention to them and keep paying attention,” Abrahams tells Russell. “Take the study of the homosexual necrophiliac duck for example. It is so far outside anyone’s experience that it’s funny. The only healthy reaction is to laugh at it, and in the moment of paying attention you might get interested.”

This year, the Ig Nobel award winners included a mathematics study to see whether and how a 17th-century Moroccan emperor might have sired 888 children, a scientist who devised a scale for rating pain felt by insect stings (from first-hand experience) and for observing that chickens with sticks attached to their tails walk in a similar manner as dinosaurs might have strutted about.

As unlikely as it seems, only four winners in the 25 years Abrahams and his publication, the Annals of Improbable Research, have awarded Ig Nobels were not verifiable – in 1991, there were three awards given out for apocryphal events and in 1994 one award was given on the basis of misleading reports in the media, according to the Ig Nobel’s website. However, Abrahams is not above giving out ironic awards: one of the Ig’s first winners, Jacques Benveniste, had published a controversial study a 1988 issue of Nature where he claimed to have found evidence that water molecules can retain memory. Abrahams also awarded the Literature award to author Erich Von Daniken for his book, The Chariots of the Gods, which explained how human civilization was founded and shaped by aliens.

The Ig Nobels may be silly, but that’s the point: not all science has to be serious and earth-changing. Ridiculous things exist right alongside the sublime, but that doesn’t make the universe’s ridiculousness less meaningful. To paraphrase the Ig Nobel’s motto, just because something makes someone laugh doesn’t mean it won’t also make them stop and consider the amazing things that exist in the world.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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