It’s Nobel Prize season! On December 10th, scientists from all over the world will converge on Stockholm, Sweden, in order to convey the highest honor in all of science. We will be reporting on that solemn ceremony next week, but this week we would like to cover the younger, goofier, but no-less-scientific cousin of the Nobel Prize, the hilarious tradition known as the Ig Nobel Prize. The Ig Nobel prize is a tradition dating back to the ancient days of 1991, when founder Marc Abrahams, a researcher with a background in applied mathematics, decided it was time to highlight those scientific studies “that make you laugh, but then they make you think.”
The Ig Nobel Prize goes to real scientific studies made by scientists around the world. Past winners include the chemist who created bright blue Jell-O, a pair of doctors who created the protocol to treat a man after he gets … caught in his zipper, a biologist who fed Prozac to clams and then tested them for overall wellbeing, and a team of scientists who taught pigeons to tell the difference between a Monet and a Picasso. Since the inception of the Ig Nobel, the award’s popularity has been growing and in recent years, Marc Abrahams and his crew receive up to 9,000 nominations per year. The irreverent awards ceremony, where Ig Nobel winners are given their prizes by actual Nobel winners, is said to be “the highlight of the scientific calendar.” (Sorry, Nobel Prize ceremony.)
Although all of these studies might seem silly or obscure, each one points the way to some kind of deeper truth. This year’s winners include biologist Dr. David Carrier of the University of Utah, who won an Ig Nobel for investigating if beards on human males evolved to protect the face from punches. The question of why human males retain such a potential for massive facial hair has long been in debate, with even the venerable Charles Darwin theorizing that beards were more about visual prestige and attracting mates. Since Dr. Carrier and his team could not actually punch human subjects, they tested sheep’s fleece with a punch-like hydraulic press. The result: the fleece absorbed 30% more shock than bare skin! This indicates that human male facial hair may be more functional than once thought, AND even that humans may have evolved to fight with fists as our primary weapon.
The Ig Nobels celebrate the infinite curiosity of scientists, and highlight the endless potential of scientific discoveries. Science is often thought of as staid and serious, but the Ig Nobel ceremony brings a lighthearted note to the scientific community. If you are a science fan, or just like to laugh (or both), we at HTHT highly recommend visiting the Ig Nobel website, Improbable Research. Run by founder Marc Abrahams, it includes all past winners with citations to their work, a delightful weekly podcast on “Improbable Science,” videos of recent ceremonies, short talks from winners, and even the pantheon of members of The Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists. If you’ve ever wanted to see a Nobel Laureate wearing an emergency face mask made out of a bra (an awesome Ig Nobel-winning innovation by Dr. Elena Bodnar), you will need to visit the Improbable Research website. Here at HTHT we like to make science fun, and we’re glad the Ig Nobels share our mission too!
Resources and Further Reading:
All of the winners of the Ig Nobel, with links to the studies: https://www.improbable.com/2021-ceremony/
Improbable Research home page: https://www.improbable.com/
2021 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony (socially distanced but still super funny):
2019 Ig Nobel Ceremony LIVE at Harvard University:
A compilation of some of Ig Nobel’s greatest hits: