Why does cereal get soggy? Why do shower curtains billow inwards when you take a shower? Does toast fall more often on its buttered side? How come woodpeckers don’t get headaches? Are black holes like Hell? How do reindeer react when they see humans disguised as polar bears? The scientists and researchers who tried to answer these bizarre questions are some of the winners of the Ig Nobel Prize. Everybody is familiar with the Nobel Prize, given to the persons who have made valuable contributions in fields such as science and literature. The lesser-known Ig Nobel Prize, instead, is given to people who investigate the most unusual or trivial issues in various disciplines. This year’s Prizes were awarded on September 9. The ceremony itself is a playful event. For example, it is tradition for the audience to throw paper planes on the stage where a ‘Keeper of the Broom’ is tasked with sweeping them off.
This year, Susanne Schötz won the Biology Prize for her study on various types of cat–human communication such as purring, meowing, hissing and growling. The Peace Prize went to Ethan Beseris, Steven Naleway, and David Carrier, for testing the hypothesis that humans evolved beards to protect themselves from punches to the face. Another group of scientists won the Chemistry Prize for analysing the bacteria in chewing gums stuck on pavements. The Physics prize went to five scientists who studied why pedestrians do not constantly collide with other pedestrians. Do the Ig Nobels simply reward research that is silly or, even, ‘ignoble’ (as the name of the Prize suggests)? Some are truly silly, like the Literature prize once given to the British Standards Institution for a six-page document on the proper way to make a cup of tea. Some indeed are ignoble: the Peace Prize is often given to governments who promote the testing of atomic weapons. In general, the Ig Nobel Prize rewards research that “first makes people laugh and then makes them think.”
Little questions, big discoveries
Most Ig Nobel Prizes are given to real scientists from distinguished institutions and universities. Andre Geim, for example, won an Ig Nobel Prize in Physics in 2000 for levitating a frog using magnets, and ten years later he won the (real) Nobel Prize in Physics. Another (real) Nobel laureate, Roy J. Gluber, was for many years the official ‘Keeper of the Broom’ at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. These scientists have a sense of humour, but they also know that trivial questions can lead to great breakthroughs. The history of science is proof of this. In the 17th century, Isaac Newton saw an apple fall from a tree and wondered: “why do apples always fall perpendicularly to the ground?” Answering this simple question led to the discovery of the laws of gravity. Also in the 17th century, mathematician Blaise Pascal investigated how best to win at a game of dice; his studies led to the foundation of one of the most important branches of mathematics: probability theory.
Smelly cheese and tangled hair
The Ig Nobel winners are therefore in good company, and some of their discoveries are proving to be relevant beyond the ridiculous subjects of their research. The 2006 Biology Prize, for example, was won by a team of scientists who proved that the female malaria mosquito is equally attracted to the smells of limburger cheese and human feet. Thanks to this discovery, special mosquito baits with limburger cheese are now used in certain parts of Africa to fight malaria. Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith won the 2008 Physics Prize for their discovery that hair and strings tend to become tangled. Their study might prove helpful in understanding why string-like molecules such as DNA also tend to get tangled up. What the Ig Nobel Prizes ultimately show us is that it’s a good thing to be playfully curious about the world and to think outside the box. Even stupid questions might have incredibly interesting answers.
- given to people who make valuable contributions in fields such as physics.
- not as famous as the Nobel Prize.
- given to researchers investigating bizarre topics.
- know that it’s a light-hearted celebration.
- bring a broom.
- bring a paper plane.
- not honourable.
- as important as the Nobel Prize.
- it praises peaceful institutions.
- it is given to institutions that do not seem interested in peace.
- it is meant to criticize the production of weapons.
- distinguished scientists from important universities.
- scientists who are interested in investigating trivial questions.
- Nobel Prize winners.
- won the Ig Nobel Prize.
- researched ‘silly’ questions and made big discoveries.
- proved that even trivial questions can be important.
- studied why string-like molecules tend to get tangled up.
- discovered something that might be useful in medicine.
- won the Ig Nobel Physics Prize.
- science can only be treated seriously.
- even science can be playful.
- it’s important to think in unusual ways.
- for health reasons.
- for protection.
- for breeding purposes.
- for their horns.
- upside down.
- lying on its side.
- lying on its chest.
- there are very few rhinos left.
- rhino horns have medicinal qualities.
- rhinos are endangered.
- bacteria carried by cockroaches.
- cockroaches inside submarines.
- bacteria in chewing gums stuck on sidewalks.
___ (Carlo Dellonte) (Image credits: Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons)