Monday, 7 January 2008

Scientists have (too much) sense of humor- The IgNobels

I know it is my time to post something, but because I spent my Christmas doing nothing, I’ll have to write a non-scientific post… and yet related with Science. Basically, about something I found out a few months ago and which shows how scientists can have a sense of humour- the IgNobel prizes. Unlike the Nobel prizes, the IgNobel prizes are not awarded to life changing research, but rather to research “that first makes you laugh… and then makes you think”. The ceremony normally happens in Autumn, more or less at the same time as the official Nobels. The mood is, however, much more relaxed and funny, perhaps a bit too much! Every year the ceremony has a topic, and this year’s topic was… chicken! Therefore, the evening was full of references to chickens including a mini opera with two chickens on stage and several talks on chicken, including one by a Google engineer with the title, and I quote, “Chicken, chicken, chicken, chicken, chicken, chicken”. Besides these very educative talks, there were also a few classics namely the 24/7 lectures, in which a scientist is invited to first give a technical description of his/her field of research in 24 seconds, and then a clear summary that anyone can understand in 7 words. Tricky, but very funny to watch!

Among much laughter and jokes, the highlight of the evening are the actual awards. But that doesn’t mean the end of the fun! The IgNobel prizes don’t have to fit into the Nobel categories, nor do they have to be the same every year. Basically, the prizes are designed to fit whatever unusual research is done every year. Some of the highlights of this year’s prizes. The IgNobel prize for medicine, for example, was given this year to DrWitcombe, for his study “ Sword swallowing and its side effects” (!). The IgNobel for Linguistics was awarded to Dr.Toro and his team from the University of Barcelona, for finding out that mice cannot distinguish between a person speaking Japanese backwards and a person speaking Dutch backwards… (!!). This year’s IgNobel prize for Peace is one of my favourites, awarded to the labs of the USA Air Force, for developing the so called “Gay bomb” which apparently makes enemy soldiers irresistible to each other (!!!). The IgNobel for Aviation, on the other hand, was given to the discovery that Viagra helps hamsters to recover from jet lag (!!!!). And the awarding of the prize is always accompanied by a little joke. The IgNobel for Chemistry this year was awarded to Dr. Yamamoto for the extraction of vanillin, the flavouring present in vanilla, from cow dung. When the prize was awarded, the Nobel (yes Nobel) laureates present on stage were invited to eat a glass of ice cream with the previously mentioned vanilla…

The IgNobel prizes, which have been awarded ever since 1991 by the Annals of Improbable Research in Harvard, are a source of laughter, especially when we think that they have been given to real researchers, for their authentic research. Some prizes are also awarded to inventions, such as an alarm clock that runs away (so that the person is forced to get out of bed to stop it) or to a scientist who patented the wheel… in 2001! Some prizes are also ironic. A man in Lithuania was awarded the IgNobel of peace due to the creation of a theme park called “The world of Estaline” while the Department of Education of the state of Kansas was awarded the IgNobel for the education of Science after having forbidden children from learning Darwin’s theories in school…

It would be wrong to think, however, that only unknown scientists participate in the ceremony. In fact, Nobel laureates are able to appreciate and participate in the fun. And not only by physically giving the IgNobel to the (un)lucky winners. A good example is the already classic contest “ Win a date with a Nobel laureate”, in which anyone from the audience can win a romantic date with a Nobel laureate. This year’s victim was Robert Laughlin, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1998. Another curious example involves the already classic tradition of throwing paper planes on stage during the ceremony. Professor Roy Glaubert, “The Keeper of the Broom” was for years responsible for sweeping the planes from the stage. Well, in 2005 Professor Glauber couldn’t perform his normal task… as he was in Stocholm receiving the Nobel prize for Physics!

I advice all of you to have a look at their website when you have a bit of time. An afternoon when I didn’t have much to do I just laughed my head off reading the list of prizes since 1991. And you can actually watch the 2007 ceremony there. Have a look at


Dan said...

Thanks for reposting this! It was truly an honor for Dr. Witcombe and me to receive the Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine at Harvard for our article "Sword Swallowing and it's Side Effects" based on my study of sword swallowers around the world published in the British Medical Journal. I'm looking forward to meeting up with Dr. Witcombe again on the Ig Nobel UK tour in March.

Thanks for reposting!

Dan Meyer
2007 Ig Nobel Laureate in Medicine
Executive Director
Sword Swallowers Association Int'l (SSAI)

Catarina Vicente said...

Dear Mr Meyer,
thank you so much for making a comment on my post! I found out about the IgNobels not long ago, and therefore about Dr.Witcomber. I must say that I have actually read the published paper and that after having read it I understood why this study was made. So, faithful to its motto, the IgNobels do reward research that "first make you laugh and then think!". I would also like to apologise for not acknowledging the fact that the prize was also awarded to you!

James Lloyd said...

good to see someone finally wrote another post, and the first of 2008. i think we all need to try the 24/7 talk about our own projects to see if we can do it. these awards to have sense behind them (of sorts). the hamster study i am sure is quite interesting and important research in curing jet lag, my question is why did the researchers try it!?! what logic was behind it?
i still love the Darwin awards, awards for people who are so stupid they remove there own genes from the gene pool for the good of the species. such as the guy who played russian rullet with a semi-automatic gun!

Catarina Vicente said...

As far as I know, on the day after the IgNobels ceremony, there is a group of lectures in which each of the winners explains to the audience what was the point of it. I think that actually sounds like the most interesting part of it all

Menelaos Symeonides said...

That was a very cool article. I definitely want to catch the ceremony next time. Also great to see someone new commenting for once!

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