Millennial Adventures: Ig Nobels make us ‘laugh, then think’

Anyone who thinks science is boring has clearly never heard of the Ig Nobel Prize.

Awarded every September since 1991, the Ig Nobel is the goofy younger cousin of the esteemed Nobel Prize. Instead of six categories, prizes are awarded in 10 categories that change year to year depending on, according to the organization’s tagline, what makes the judges “laugh, then think.”

Like the real Nobel Prizes, the Ig Nobel lauds achievements in the fields of medicine, biology, physics and economics. The United States have dominated the market in both awards. The two awards come together during the annual ceremony because the Ig Nobels are handed out by people who won actual Nobel prizes, but that’s where the connection ends.

Researchers from all countries and disciplines, even ornithology and safety engineering, are welcomed to Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, where the award ceremony is held. The ceremony officially begins when audience members chuck paper airplanes at a designated human target on the stage, and speakers only have 60 seconds to present their research; in previous years, this was enforced by a child nicknamed Miss Sweetie Poo going up to the lectern and repeating “Please stop, I’m bored” until the speaker left the stage.

Never fear, though. The Ig Informal Lectures are held the following Saturday to give presenters more time to explain the crazy things they’re working on. They definitely need it.

Some of the awards are given to researchers who investigate legitimate questions. The 2015 prize for mathematics went to a duo from Germany who looked at whether a 15th century Moroccan emperor was actually able to father 888 children in 30 years, according to legend; they found it is possible and with fewer mothers than previously thought.

Others seem silly but have practical uses, such as the 2009 public health prize, which went to Dr. Elena Bodnar for inventing a bra that can double as a pair of gas masks in an emergency. After evacuating and treating children after the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine, she developed the Emergency Bra, which functions primarily just like a regular one, so people have easy access to a mask. Another model includes a radiation censor in the event of a nuclear emergency.

Another one with real-life implications was Brian Wansink’s 2007 nutrition prize for rigging up some soup bowls so they would constantly refill themselves and seeing how much people eat out of them as opposed to regular bowls. As obesity rates suggest, people are more inclined to estimate calories consumed based on their eyes rather than their stomachs.

And some just make you scratch your head. The 2007 linguistics prize went to a trio from Barcelona who showed that rats can’t tell the difference between someone speaking Japanese backwards and someone speaking Dutch backwards. Can humans tell the difference between backwards Japanese and backwards Dutch? Can rats tell the difference between the two languages when they’re spoken in the correct direction? Will anyone need to know this fact other than as a weird dinner party conversation starter?

This year’s awards celebrated people who lived in the wild as a variety of different animals, wrote a three-part autobiography about collecting dead and mostly-dead flies, and tried to figure out whether things look differently when you look at them upside down through your legs, among other things.

Do we need to have a separate ceremony to celebrate the silly and somewhat impractical things that people are researching? Probably not. But when the rest of the news is doom and gloom and no one pays attention to the science we can actually use, the Ig Nobel Prizes are a welcome break.

Amanda Hutchinson is a 2015 graduate of Ithaca College, a resident of Ledyard, and the assistant community editor for The Times. Read more of her work at amandalhutchinson.wordpress.com.

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