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What You Need to Know About the Ig Nobel Prizes

Posted by on September 22, 2020 in Happiness & Humor with 0 Comments

You have probably heard about the Golden Raspberry Awards, a satirical alternative to the Oscars given out to the worst films, actors, and directors each year. You have probably also heard of the Darwin Awards, another questionable distinction bestowed upon the people who remove themselves from humanity’s collective gene pool in the most stupid and creative ways. But have you ever heard of the Ig Nobel prize? If not, here’s all you need to know about it.


Science humor is not something confined to obscure Facebook groups and subreddits. It is a real thing, and it has its own magazines, too – the Journal of Irreproducible Results and the Annals of Improbable Research, among others. Harvard’s Marc Abrahams is related to both: he was the editor-in-chief of the former and the co-founder/editor of the latter. And he was the one who created the Ig Nobels in 1991, an award ceremony to honor discoveries “that cannot, or should not, be reproduced”.

The Ig Nobels have become a widespread phenomenon in the decades that have passed, pointing fingers at some of the most, ahem, interesting (and sometimes questionable) science achievements of each year. And before you argue that it’s just a joke, know that the event is co-sponsored by the Harvard Computer Society, the Harvard–Radcliffe Science Fiction Association, and the Harvard–Radcliffe Society of Physics Students and that the presenters are often Nobel laureates themselves.

Notable winners

The List of ignoble Ig Nobel winners is long and fun to read, filled with many facepalms. Among the laureates, we find Swiss author Erich von Däniken, one of the proponents of the theory of ancient aliens, Éclaireurs de France, a French scouting organization that removed two prehistoric cave paintings from the Cave of Mayrières supérieure while trying to erase graffiti, numerologist Robert W. Faid for calculating the exact odds of Mikhail Gorbachev being the Antichrist (710,609,175,188,282,000 to 1), a group of Japanese scientists for teaching pigeons to tell Picasso from Monet, Robert Matthews of Aston University who demonstrated that toast doesn’t always fall on its buttered side, Dr. Paul Bosland, director of the Chile Pepper Institute of New Mexico, for breeding a spiceless jalapeño, and the Vatican for outsourcing prayers to India.

This year’s winners

2020 has been a year that we spent under threat from a novel virus, with constant debates on the efficacity of face coverings and tips on shopping for food safely during the pandemic. Thus, it may seem surprising that so few of the Ig Nobel prizes presented this year are related to the novel coronavirus. This doesn’t make then any less interesting and fun to read.

This year’s prizes include, among others, a prize for Acoustics awarded to a group of scientists for studying the voice of an alligator in a room filled with heliox (a breathing gas mixture of helium and oxygen), another in Psychology that studied the relationship between a nation’s national income and mouth-to-mouth kissing, a prize in Entomology for a scientist demonstrating that most entomologists are afraid of spiders, one in Medicine for diagnosing the condition called “misophonia”, where the sound of someone making chewing sounds causes distress in the sufferer.

The funniest – and perhaps the saddest – Ig Nobel prizes this year were the ones for Management and Medical Education.

The one in Management was awarded to five professional hitmen from China. The first one accepted payment for a hit job then subcontracted it to the second, who then subcontracted it to a third, and so on. Of course, each of the subcontractors was offered a smaller percentage of the payment. In the end, none of the five actually completed the job, of course.

The second, in Medical Education, was offered to the leaders of Brazil, the UK, India, Mexico, Belarus, the United States, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Russia for “using the Covid-19 viral pandemic to teach the world that politicians can have a more immediate effect on life and death than scientists and doctors can”.

Considering the current public health situation, this year’s ceremony was webcast from the Sanders Theatre at Harvard. The list of presenters included Nobel laureates Eric S. Maskin (Economics), Frances Arnold (Chemistry), Rich Roberts (Psychology), Marty Chalfie (Chemistry), Jerome Friedman (Physics), and  Andre Geim (Physics).

This was the first – and hopefully only – Ig Nobel ceremony that was held exclusively online. You can follow the entire show here.

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