Ig Nobel Prizes-- For Overlooked Achievements, From Herring Farts to Exploding Colons

The magazine Annals of Improbable Research
The magazine Annals of Improbable Research | Source

Nobel vs Ig Nobel Prizes

In December of each year, the prestigious Nobel Prizes are awarded in Oslo, Norway and Stockholm, Sweden, honoring the world's best achievements in many different fields. In September or October of each year (since 1991) the Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded for achievements not quite up to the caliber of the Nobel Committee, or up to anyone's, for that matter, but which deserve recognition for making us laugh and then, perhaps, think.

The Ig Nobel Prizes were first awarded in 1991 and are organized by the Annals of Improbable Research, a magazine that takes a satirical look at standard scientific journals and is devoted to scientific humor-- the sort of magazine Leonard, Howard and Rajesh (if not Sheldon) might read in the The Big Bang Theory series. Each year, Ig Nobel prizes honor unusual or trivial achievements in ten Nobel-like categories: Peace, Medicine, Literature, Physics, etc, though changing year by year as befits the candidates.

Magnetically levitating a live frog, an experiment that earned Geim and Michael Berry the 2000 Ig Nobel Prize.
Magnetically levitating a live frog, an experiment that earned Geim and Michael Berry the 2000 Ig Nobel Prize. | Source
Slime mold-- is it solving a puzzle or thinking about which train to catch?
Slime mold-- is it solving a puzzle or thinking about which train to catch? | Source

Make 'Em Laugh But Make 'Em Think

Although the prizes can be veiled criticism (for example, a US Air Force lab won the Ig Nobel Prize for Peace for recommending research into a “Gay Bomb” that would cause enemy troops to become attracted to each other), most are for purely trivial (but humorous) accomplishments or for research with an unexpected twist. And just because it's fun doesn't necessarily mean it's a joke; Sir Andre Geim won an Ig Nobel Prize for Physics for levitating a live frog in 2000 and went on to win a Noble physics prize in 2010 for experiments with two-dimensional graphene material. Also, proof that some scientists don't have a sense of humor: a scientist with the British government requested that organizers of the Ig Noble Prizes not include any British scientists because it ridiculed genuine experiments. Then, proof that some scientists do have a sense of humor: British scientists contacted the organizers and said to take no notice of the aforementioned official.

Ira Flatow receiving the National Science Board Public Service Award in 2005.
Ira Flatow receiving the National Science Board Public Service Award in 2005. | Source

The Ceremony

The ceremony awarding the prizes is held at Harvard and broadcast live on the Internet as well as being recorded by National Public Radio to be broadcast after Thanksgiving on the radio program Science Friday with Ira Flatow. Genuine Nobel laureates present the awards and there are many running jokes, like a little girl who cries “Please stop! I'm bored.” when the proceedings start to drag and the throwing of paper airplanes on the stage. At the closing, it is customary for the emcee to say “If you didn't win a prize — and especially if you did — better luck next year!”

Some Ig Nobel Prizes Awarded in Recent Years:

  • (2013) Peace: [President of Belarus; Belarus State Police] For declaring applauding in public illegal and arresting a one-armed man for applauding.
  • (2012) Literature: [US Government General Accountability Office] For issuing a report about reports about reports that recommended the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports.
  • (2012) Medicine: For advising doctors performing colonoscopies on how to minimize the chance that their patients will explode.
  • (2011) Peace: [Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania] For demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked cars can be solved by running them over with an armored personnel carrier. See video.
  • (2010) Chemistry: For disproving the old belief that oil and water don't mix.
  • (2010) Management: For demonstrating mathematically that organizations would become more efficient if people were promoted at random.
  • (2010) Physics: For demonstrating that people slip and fall less often on icy sidewalks if they wear socks on the outside of their shoes.
  • (2010) Medicine: For discovering that symptoms of asthma can be treated with a roller coaster ride.
  • (2010) Peace: For confirming the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain.
  • (2010) Transportation Planning: For using slime mold to determine the optimal routes for railroad tracks.
  • (2009) Literature: [Ireland's police service] For writing and presenting more than 50 traffic tickets to a Polish individual, by the name of "Prawo Jazdy" until an investigation uncovered the fact that Prawo Jazdy is the Polish term for "Driving License".
  • (2009) Medicine: [Donald L. Unger] For investigating a possible cause of arthritis of the fingers, by cracking the knuckles of his left hand, but not his right hand, every day for 50 years.
  • (2009) Public Health: [Dr. Elena N. Bodnar and others] For inventing a bra that can be quickly converted into a pair of gas masks. See video.
  • (2008) Cognitive Science: For discovering that slime molds can solve puzzles.
  • (2007) Peace: [The United States Air Force Wright Laboratory] For suggesting the research and development of a "gay bomb" to cause enemy troops to become sexually attracted to each other.
  • (2004) Biology [Various scientists] For discovering that herrings apparently communicate by farting. This later embarrassed the Swedish government who denied that herring were farting in Stockholm harbor-- it really was Russian submarines.
  • Here is a complete list of all the Ig Noble Prizes awarded.

Ig Nobel Public Health Prize: Bra Becomes Gas Masks

Mayor Received Ig Noble Peace Prize For Fighting Illegally Parked Cars

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Comments 19 comments

jessefutch profile image

jessefutch 4 years ago from North Carolina

Along the same lines of the Gay Bomb... I wonder if it's possible to create a Hub Bomb to help us come up with more great Hubbery like this..?? Awesome Hub. Voted up!


Pavlo Badovskyy profile image

Pavlo Badovskyy 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

I would be proud to have this prize. Do you know how much money they give?

I liked major of Vilnius for his parking ideas.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks for commenting, jessefutch. I'd settle for a Writer's Block Bomb!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Hi Pavlo, I haven't seen any mention of a monetary award-- certainly nothing close to Nobel prize money. I guess the "glory" is enough. Actually, it was the mayor and his car-crushing solution that led me to the Ig Nobels. I'd read about the mayor when he actually did his stunt and so when I'd heard he won some kind of award, I investigated. Thanks once again for your comments.


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 4 years ago from Northern California

I take it that there have not been any Igs awarded for Hubs. I'll see what I can do about that. :) Voted up, shared, and more.


againsttheodds profile image

againsttheodds 4 years ago

That's a great idea. Hope none of mine get nominated. Is there an accolade.for that?


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Larry and againsttheodds: I bet if a Hub won an Ig Nobel (I assume for Literature, but you never know) that HubPages would come up with a special accolade for it!


AlexK2009 profile image

AlexK2009 4 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

The "Gay Bomb" would have backfired. In Ancient Greece it was believed soldiers who were lovers would fight harder to impress the other.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Yeah, aside from how in the world they would have created a "gay bomb", what in the world made them think that gay soldiers would be any less effective. Well, the Ig Noble prize IS supposed to make us think, no matter how bizarre or, in this case, absolutely ridiculous, so I guess they've accomplished it. Thanks for commenting, AlexK.


fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 4 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

funny Funny FUNNY! I love the 2010 Peace prize. Of course we all know this is fact.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Thanks fpherj48. For sheer persistence, I'll go with the guy who cracked his knuckles on one hand only for 50 years.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 4 years ago from American Southwest

I rather like the slime mold idea for transportation planning. And some of the others remind me of a British engineer I know of who said an experiment he was given to do, of firing pebbles at a tensioned tether for the space shuttle, to test the theory that the tether would break (it did), earned him a lifetime membership in the Royal Society for the Deduction of the Bloody Obvious.


Alastar Packer profile image

Alastar Packer 4 years ago from North Carolina

These Ig Nobel prizes are awesome, thanks for bringing them to our reading pleasure here on HP. Hats off to Dr Unger's tireless dedication on behalf of arthritis, and for the 2009 Management winner- who was on to something true there as apparently proven..


rcrumple profile image

rcrumple 4 years ago from Kentucky

What would be nice would be a Truth Week bomb that could be set off during a mandatory full session of Congress. For at least one week, honesty would rule instead of lies and deception. Wonder how much could really get done? lol Oh well, at least all you've written about is better than studying the mating habits of African Tree frogs! Loved it! Great Job!


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

aethelthryth, it sounds like the Ig Nobles and the R. S. for the Deduction of the Bloody Obvious would be natural competitors. Think what the world would be like if they got together! Also, the fact that there were two slime mold winners...well, maybe slime mold is a lot more intelligent that we thought!

Alastar, I thought the random promotion was rather telling about corporate society. I wonder how valid the research was-- there's probably something to it, since, despite the frivolity, the science behind the winners is real.

rcrumple, if you consider a Truth Week bomb is as feasible as a Gay Bomb, why not? Other than that the government would fall.


AlexK2009 profile image

AlexK2009 4 years ago from Edinburgh, Scotland

The benefit of random promotion is that it puts the good worker at the same level as the good talker.

The disadvantage is that if the best candidates are rare then they are likely to be overlooked for a long time.

A third point is that if promotion is known to be random then the possibility of a swollen head is drastically reduced.


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

AlexK2009-- all good points. It also removes a lot of butt-kissing. The winners of the prize, however, were able to prove it mathematically, which is even cooler. Valve Software (billion-dollar game maker) has solved the problem-- by not having any managers.


Larry Fields profile image

Larry Fields 4 years ago from Northern California

Hi David. Do you think that my latest hub is Ig-worthy?


UnnamedHarald profile image

UnnamedHarald 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa Author

Larry, it would surely seem to meet their requirements. That is, a serious approach to a problem faced by only a very few people under strange circumstances.

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