Credit: Improbable Research

More Laughing, More Thinking

There was a lot going on this week, as there always is, including the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the beginning of the NFL season, so you may have missed a big event: the announcement of the 31st First Annual Ig Nobel Awards (no, those are not typos).

What’s that you say — you don’t know the Ig Nobel Awards? These annual awards, organized by the magazine Annals of Improbable Research, seek to:

…honor achievements that make people LAUGH, then THINK. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.

Some scientists seek the glory of the actual Nobel prizes, some want to change the world by coming up with an XPRIZE winning idea, but I’m pretty sure that if I was a scientist I’d be shooting to win an Ig Nobel Prize. I mean, the point of the awards is “to help people discover things that are surprising — so surprising that those things make people LAUGH, then THINK.” What’s better than that?

Healthcare could use more Ig.

2021 Ig Nobel Chemistry winner Dr. Joerg Wicker and prizes. Credit: Improbable Research

The awards have been held every year since 1991, and the ceremonies feature actual Nobel Prize winners handling out the awards (although the 2021 and 2020 ceremonies were virtual). Winners receive a $10 trillion bill (fake, of course), a cheesy looking award, and the opportunity to give a “24/7 lecture” — explaining their research in detail but in only 24 words, then in a simple, 7 word description.

You really can’t get a flavor of the Ig Nobels without actually seeing the winners, so here they are:

BIOLOGY PRIZE [SWEDEN]: Susanne Schötz, Robert Eklund, and Joost van de Weijer, for analyzing variations in purring, chirping, chattering, trilling, tweedling, murmuring, meowing, moaning, squeaking, hissing, yowling, howling, growling, and other modes of cat–human communication.

ECOLOGY PRIZE [SPAIN. IRAN]: Leila Satari, Alba Guillén, Àngela Vidal-Verdú, and Manuel Porcar, for using genetic analysis to identify the different species of bacteria that reside in wads of discarded chewing gum stuck on pavements in various countries.

CHEMISTRY PRIZE [GERMANY, UK, NEW ZEALAND, GREECE, CYPRUS, AUSTRIA]: Jörg Wicker, Nicolas Krauter, Bettina Derstroff, Christof Stönner, Efstratios Bourtsoukidis, Achim Edtbauer, Jochen Wulf, Thomas Klüpfel, Stefan Kramer, and Jonathan Williams, for chemically analyzing the air inside movie theaters, to test whether the odors produced by an audience reliably indicate the levels of violence, sex, antisocial behavior, drug use, and bad language in the movie the audience is watching.

ECONOMICS PRIZE [FRANCE, SWITZERLAND, AUSTRALIA, AUSTRIA, CZECH REPUBLIC, UK]: Pavlo Blavatskyy, for discovering that the obesity of a country’s politicians may be a good indicator of that country’s corruption.

MEDICINE PRIZE [GERMANY, TURKEY, UK]: Olcay Cem Bulut, Dare Oladokun, Burkard Lippert, and Ralph Hohenberger, for demonstrating that sexual orgasms can be as effective as decongestant medicines at improving nasal breathing.

PEACE PRIZE [USA]: Ethan Beseris, Steven Naleway, and David Carrier, for testing the hypothesis that humans evolved beards to protect themselves from punches to the face.

PHYSICS PRIZE [THE NETHERLANDS, ITALY, TAIWAN, USA]: Alessandro Corbetta, Jasper Meeusen, Chung-min Lee, Roberto Benzi, and Federico Toschi, for conducting experiments to learn why pedestrians do not constantly collide with other pedestrians.

KINETICS PRIZE [JAPAN, SWITZERLAND, ITALY]: Hisashi Murakami, Claudio Feliciani, Yuta Nishiyama, and Katsuhiro Nishinari, for conducting experiments to learn why pedestrians do sometimes collide with other pedestrians.

ENTOMOLOGY PRIZE [USA]: John Mulrennan, Jr., Roger Grothaus, Charles Hammond, and Jay Lamdin, for their research study “A New Method of Cockroach Control on Submarines”.

Credit: Radcliffe, et. alia

TRANSPORTATION PRIZE [NAMIBIA, SOUTH AFRICA, TANZANIA, ZIMBABWE, BRAZIL, UK, USA]: Robin Radcliffe, Mark Jago, Peter Morkel, Estelle Morkel, Pierre du Preez, Piet Beytell, Birgit Kotting, Bakker Manuel, Jan Hendrik du Preez, Michele Miller, Julia Felippe, Stephen Parry, and Robin Gleed, for determining by experiment whether it is safer to transport an airborne rhinoceros upside-down.

You can watch the ceremonies here:

The rhino-hanging upside down award got a lot of media attention, as you might imagine. Long story short, it doesn’t seem to hurt them any worse than transporting them right-side up, although neither is particularly good for them. As for the Medicine prize winner, yes, sex works — the effect may not be as long-lasting as a decongestant, but hopefully is more fun.

These might seem like the kinds of research that the Golden Fleece Awards (started by Senator William Proxmire) like to skewer, but that misses the point. As Improbable Research says:

We are honoring achievements that make people laugh, then think. Good achievements can also be odd, funny, and even absurd; So can bad achievements. A lot of good science gets attacked because of its absurdity. A lot of bad science gets revered despite its absurdity.

The Guardian published an opinion piece defending the Ig Nobels, arguing: “A sense of humour is beneficial because it allows for new concepts to be entertained…Without research driven by curiosity and unbounded by orthodoxy there would be far fewer discoveries…Science ought to consider weighty matters. But gravity ought not eclipse levity.” Without unorthodox thinking, they say, science would not get far.

Hear! Hear!

The pandemic has heightened everyone’s attention to research. Do we trust FDA approvals, EUAs, and peer-reviewed studies, or do we buy into less fact-supported assertions from people whose political positions match ours? Where is the line between misinformation and unorthodox views?

We’ve seen a lot of bad science getting revered despite its absurdity, to use Improbable Research’s words. People, including physicians and other scientists, have pushed for hydroxychloroquine and/or ivermectin, and against vaccines or even masks. The Federation of State Medical Boards has had to warn physicians they could lose their license by propagating misinformation.

That’s not what the Ig Nobel Prizes are about. They’re not simply supporting anything unorthodox; they are about having a both healthy sense of curiosity and a healthy sense of humor.

I get that medicine can literally be life-and-death, and that, arguably, we value nothing more than our health. But that’s no good reason for health and medicine to always be serious, to always be orthodox. That’s the path towards irrelevance.

So, healthcare researchers, have some fun. XPRIZE founder Peter Diamandis, M.D., has said: “The day before something is truly a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea.” Maybe even a funny one.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Kim Bellard

Kim Bellard

Curious about many things, some of which I write about — usually health care, innovation, technology, or public policy. Never stop asking “why” or “why not”!