In 1990, as editor of a science magazine, Marc Abrahams encountered plenty of important research. He also saw lots of science that was just plain hilarious—but those researchers remained obscure. “So,” he says, “we began to celebrate them.” He held the first Ig Nobel awards in September 1991. In the decades since, the ceremony has honored research that probes why woodpeckers don’t get headaches, and whether humans swim faster in syrup or water (it’s a wash). It’s work that lives up to the Ig Nobel tagline: “Research that makes people laugh and then think.”
Mouse over the dots to read our favorite Ig Nobels. The award language (“For…”) is quoted from Improbable.com. Graphic by Katie Peek.
The award language (“For…”) is quoted from Improbable.com. Graphic by Katie Peek.
For circular contributions to field theory based on the geometrical destruction of English crops
For success in training pigeons to discriminate between the paintings of Picasso and those of Monet
For demonstrating that toast often falls on the buttered side
For the revealing report “Chicken Plucking as Measure of Tornado Wind Speed”
Safety Engineering, 1998
For developing and personally testing a suit of armor that is impervious to grizzly bears
For the six-page specification (British Standard 6008) of the proper way to make a cup of tea
For the discovery that, biochemically, romantic love may be indistinguishable from having severe obsessive-compulsive disorder
For the partial solution to the question of why shower curtains billow inward
For inventing a washing machine for cats and dogs
For patenting the comb-over (U.S. Patent No. 4,022,227)
For conducting experiments to learn why people dislike the sound of fingernails scraping on a blackboard
Veterinary Medicine, 2009
For showing that cows who have names give more milk than cows that are nameless
For confirming the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain
For confirming, by experiment, that people who think they are drunk also think they are attractive
For measuring the amount of friction between a shoe and a banana skin, and between a banana skin and the floor, when a person steps on a banana skin that’s on the floor
This year’s Ig Nobels will take place on September 17. For the 20th year running, the ceremony will be webcast if you care to watch the silliness remotely. Awardees share their work onstage, interspersed with a new science-themed opera every year.
This article was originally published in the September 2015 issue of Popular Science, under the title “The Less-Noble Nobels.”
Eight Awards In Detail, Plus Three Laureates
A Texas state senator earned an Ig Nobel for requiring permits to purchase laboratory glassware—one of many times the committee has used its position to spotlight people who hinder science. But just as often, scientists themselves are skewered: In 1993, the literature prize went to all 976 authors of a 10-page biology paper.
A spiceless jalapeño might seem like an oxymoron, but a horticulturalist at the Chile Pepper Institute of New Mexico State University was recognized for developing one. The pepper—dubbed the NuMex Primavera—allows a chef to create a salsa that’s mild but still tastes like jalapeños.
Andre Geim (Physics, 2000)
In 2000, Geim and a collaborator won an Ig Nobel for levitating a frog. (They were demonstrating that high-power electromagnets can lift objects that aren’t inherently magnetic.) In 2010, Geim received a Nobel prize—sans “Ig”—in physics, for isolating graphene with simple adhesive tape.
Theodore Gray (Chemistry, 2002)
Popular Science‘s “Gray Matter” columnist earned a 2002 Ig Nobel for his periodic-table table, a coffee table holding samples of nearly all 118 elements. As a Swiss citizen, Gray is technically a two-time winner: The Swiss people hold a 2008 prize for “adopting the legal principle that plants have dignity.”
Two teams won prizes for discovering that herring communicate underwater by emitting gas—that is to say, by farting—at a rate that creates an audible chirp. According to Marc Abrahams, the research diffused an international incident: The Swedish government had initially assumed the chirp was from Russian spy submarines.
The honor went to a pair of researchers who calculated how many group pictures you must snap for everyone’s eyes to be open in at least one. Their rule of thumb? For groups of 20 or fewer, divide the number of people by three, and take that many photos.
Winners often demonstrate their inventions and discoveries at the Ig Nobel ceremony, which is held on the Harvard campus each September. In 2007, an author of a study on the side effects of sword swallowing—sore throats were common—swallowed a sword on stage. No report on how his throat felt the next day.
Public Health, 2010
A study of microbes and toxins in beards—specifically, the beards of researchers working in laboratories—caught the fancy of the Ig Nobel committee. It also became the basis for safety guidelines in biohazard labs worldwide, Abrahams says. The image here is Figure 2 from the original 1967 paper. The bearded researchers are demonstrating different sampling techniques.
In 1996, a Stanford philosophy professor wrote a theory of structured procrastination. He argued that high achievement comes by working on important tasks as a means of avoiding other important tasks—for example, the papers he was avoiding grading. The procrastinators on the Ig Nobel committee lauded the author 15 years later.
Joseph Keller (Physics, 1999 and 2012)
Only a few people have the honor of being singled out for Ig Nobels twice. Joseph Keller won in 1999 for a model of a dripless teapot spout, and then again in 2012 for a calculation of the forces that move hair in a ponytail.
Craving your own Jesus moment? Italian researchers earned an Ig Nobel for finding a way to walk—or more accurately, run—on water. The secret: You have to weigh less than about 160 pounds, and the water you’re running across needs to be on the moon.