The Ig Nobel prizes have been awarded each year since 1991 by the scientific community to reward research that could not, or should not be reproduced.
Almost everyone has heard of the Nobel Prizes, named after Alfred Nobel, which are awarded to people who have achieved the truly spectacular, such as Albert Einstein, he of E=mc2 fame, and Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet who won the Nobel prize for peace in 1989. At first glance, the Ig Nobel prizes may seem silly, until you understand the deeper meaning of these prizes to some of the scientific community.
Some of the prizes are commentaries on current affairs, others are recognition for having the courage to make a fool of yourself in public in the name of increasing the public understanding of science, and others are awarded to highlight some of the stranger aspects of science and non-science, to make the audience laugh, and then to make them think. Other prizes are awarded to hold a mirror up to the scientific world as a whole, as a general excuse to have a good laugh and dispel the myth that scientists are all really boring people.
Each year, approximately ten prizes are awarded in various areas, which vary slightly from year to year. They are awarded at a gala ceremony at Harvard University in the USA in October, and are presented to their lucky winners by genuine Nobel laureates. The event is organised by US Science Magazine The Annals of Improbable Research which is to mainstream science journals what Punch is to The Times. Potential winners are nominated by readers of the magazine and via e-mail to the editor, Marc Abrahams at Harvard University, USA.
Who Can Win an Ig Nobel Prize?
Anyone can be nominated for a prize, if they have done something for science that is worth pondering or thinking about. You can even nominate yourself, although, at the time of writing, only one self-nominee got an Ig.
The Ig Nobel Prize Board of Governors is responsible for sorting through the nominations. The board consists of scientists (some of whom are Nobel Laureates), science writers, athletes, public officials and other individuals of 'greater or lesser eminence'. These people go through the nominations and investigate if the nominees truly exist, and if they actually do, what their nominations claim. In the end, the most imaginative, unusual and curious ones end up with the award.
Contrary to what you might expect after reading the list of achievements that have attracted Ig Nobel awards, many of the winners turn up to collect their prize in person. Some who are unable to attend send recorded acceptance speeches, while less flattered recipients, who consider the prize either an insult or a joke at their expense, do not collect their award and avoid the ceremony altogether.
What is the Prize Worth?
The prize itself is fairly unremarkable as prizes go, but it is always unique. The 2002 prizes consisted of a square white base, upon which was written 'Ig Nobel Prize' in black lettering. Mounted on the base is a short pole about eight inches high, on top of which stands a set of wind-up teeth. Follow the link in the chemistry section if you'd like to see a picture of one.
The annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony is held in October at Sanders Theatre, Harvard University. This theatre, inspired by Christopher Wren's Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford, UK, boasts a seating capacity of 1,166 and 'an intimate 180° design which provides unusual proximity to the stage'. Those who have graced its podium have included Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt and Martin Luther King.
Here are some of the various prizes awarded and a selection of the recipients of those prizes, and what they did to achieve it.
In 2002, four scientists from the UK won the prize for their study of 'Courtship behaviour of ostriches towards humans under farming conditions in Britain'.
In 2001, Buck Weimer of Colorado won the prize for inventing 'Under-Ease, an air-tight undergarment, with a replaceable filter, that removes foul smells before they can escape.
In 1999, the chilli pepper institute of New Mexico State University won the biology prize for breeding a spiceless jalapeno chilli pepper.
In 1996, two scientists from the University of Bergen, Norway, won the prize for their fascinating report on the 'Effect of Ale, Garlic and Soured Cream on the Appetite of Leeches'.
The 2002 Ig Nobel Prize for chemistry was awarded to Theodore Gray of Champaign, Illinois, USA, for building the first periodic table. You may have seen a periodic table before as created by Dimitri Mendeleev in 1869, either in the back of a text book or hanging on a chemistry lab wall, but Theodore Gray built a real four-legged wooden periodic table, complete with compartments into which he installed samples of all of the elements he could safely store.
Theodore Gray was one of the many winners who travelled to the ceremony in 2002 to accept his award. His account of the ceremony, together with a picture of an Ig Nobel prize can be found at Theodore's Ig Nobel Page.
In 2002, Arnd Leike of the University of Munich presumably had a very good time researching and eventually proving that beer froth obeys the mathematical law of exponential decay.
In 2000, Andre Geim of Neijmegen in the Netherlands and Sir Michael Berry of Bristol University in England won the award for using extremely strong magnets to levitate frogs and sumo-wrestlers.
In 1994, the Japanese meteorological agency won this prize for their seven-year study into whether or not earthquakes are caused by catfish wiggling their tails.
A new category for 2002, but how else could you classify Karl Kruszelnicki's study at the University of Sydney, Australia for performing a comprehensive survey of human belly-button lint - who gets it, what colour it is, and how much they get.
Three Japanese scientists by the names of Keita Sato, Dr Matsumi Suzuki and Dr Norio Kogure won the 2002 prize for inventing 'Bow-lingual', an automatic dog-to-human translation device.
Who can forget the Royal Navy's contribution to world peace when they were ordered to stop using live cannon shells and just shout 'Bang' instead, earning them the 2000 peace prize?
In 2001, the technology prize was awarded to John Keogh of Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia, and also the Australian patent office, after Mr Keogh successfully patented the wheel as a 'Circular transportation facilitation device', highlighting the dangers of an improperly regulated patent system.
In 2000, Chris Niswander of Tuscon, Arizona won the award for inventing 'PawSense', which is computer software that can detect when a cat is walking across your computer keyboard and then plays loud noises through the computer speakers to shoo it away.
Stop for a Cup of Tea
The 1999 ceremony had four awards dedicated to light refreshment and tea in particular.
The sociology prize for that year was awarded to Steve Penfold of York University in Toronto, Canada, for doing his PhD thesis on the subject of the sociology of Canadian donut shops.
Two scientists won the physics prize in 1999 for related studies: Doctor Len Fisher of Bath, England, won his prize for calculating the optimal way to dunk a biscuit; and Professor Jean-Marc van den Broeck of the University of East Anglia won his prize for calculating how to make a teapot spout that does not drip. Dr Fisher's work was covered in this BBC News Coverage of The Science of Biscuit Dunking.
Finally, the British Standards Institution won the literature prize for its six page specification 'BS 6008: Tea Specification' detailing the precise methods used to make a proper British standard cup of tea. This award was collected by the head of the BSI's regulatory affairs office, Mr Reg Blake, who wore a pinstripe suit, with a bowler hat onto which he had affixed one teapot, two union jack flags, and a selection of cups which dangled from the brim.
So, How Do You Make a Proper Cup of Tea?
According to Mr Blake, the procedure is very simple:
Take two grams mass of tea per 100ml of water.
Add the tea to the pot and fill the pot to within four to six millimetres of the brim.
Put on the lid, and leave to brew for six minutes.
Put five millilitres of milk into a cup, and pour on the burnt tea.
At the time of writing, BS 6008 can be purchased from the British Standards Institute at a cost of £22.00.
Many other worthwhile inventions, and not-so-worthwhile inventions are commemorated by the Annals of Improbable Research. As this magazine rarely makes it onto the news-stands in the UK, we heartily recommend that you find your local friendly scientist and get into deep and meaningful conversations on some scientific topic. If you do this, then the Ig Nobel prizes have succeeded in their goal.