One group of researchers formulated an equation that can predict the bounciness and stiffness of a ponytail. Another discovered that chimpanzees are capable of identifying each other’s gender by looking at photographs of their rear ends. Welcome to the annual Ig Nobel Prize, an awared given, in the words of the organization’s website, to leaders and thinkers who “celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.”
But an Ig Nobel doesn’t go to just any wonky theory or crackpot scientific work. All nominees’ research is peer-reviewed and has been published in scholarly journals, according to BBC. The philosophy behind the awards is look for discoveries that are funny as well as thought-provoking. So, for example, the ponytail discovery, says one member of the winning team Patrick Warren, can potentially help hair look natural in animated movies, BBC reported. Likewise the chimpanzee study helped scientists understand how primates view other members of their family group, and how they perceive distinctions in “sex, kinship and dominance.”
Unlike the Nobel Prize, the Ig Nobel Prize offers no monetary rewards, not even travel expenses to its gala awards ceremony, which most of the winners in recent years have attended (a video of this year’s awards ceremony is available here). According to its tradition, winners are given 60 seconds to explain their research at the gala at Harvard. If they rumble on, paper planes would be thrown at the speakers. A little girl with two blonde ponytails named Miss Sweetie Poo would go up to the stage and yell, “I’m bored!” (Researchers are invited to give longer versions of their acceptance speech the following day at MIT.)
The prize was started in 1995 by a Harvard grad named Marc Abrams, founder of the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research.
(EXPLAINER: How do Nobel Prize winners spend their prize money?)
Here a few of our favorite past winners:
Peace Prize (1995): The Taiwan National Parliament, for demonstrating that politicians gain more by punching, kicking and gouging each other than by waging war against other nations.
Entomology Prize (1997): Mark Hostetler of the University of Florida, for his scholarly book, “That Gunk on Your Car,” which identifies the insect splats that appear on automobile windows. [The book is published by Ten Speed Press.]
Engineering Prize (2004): Donald J. Smith and his father, the late Frank J. Smith, of Orlando Florida, USA, for patenting the combover (U.S. Patent #4,022,227).
Chemistry Prize (2011): Makoto Imai, Naoki Urushihata, Hideki Tanemura, Yukinobu Tajima, Hideaki Goto, Koichiro Mizoguchi and Junichi Murakami of JAPAN, for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the “wasabi alarm“.