Ig Nobel Prize: Spoof Awards for Some Unlikely True Science

Ig Nobel Prizes announced this year's winners.

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Performing chemists Joost Bonsen (L) and Daniel Roseberg (R) at the 2007 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, Oct. 4, 2007, at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. The prizes honor "achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think".

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.”

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This year’s literature prize went to the U.S. Government General Accountability Office, for publishing its report “about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports,” as the Ig Nobel website put it.

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.”

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Every year 10 winners are chosen — by a panel that includes several actual Nobel Laureates — out of a pool of more than 5,000 nominations.

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.

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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.]

Literature Prize (1998)Dr. Mara Sidoli of Washington, DC, for her illuminating report, “Farting as a Defence Against Unspeakable Dread.”

Physics Prize (2002)Arnd Leike of the University of Munich, for demonstrating that beer froth obeys the mathematical Law of Exponential Decay.

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).

Medicine Prize (2007): Brian Witcombe of Gloucester, UK, and Dan Meyer of Antioch, Tennessee, USA, for their penetrating medical report “Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects.”

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“.

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