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.”