Awards Science and Culture

The Silly Side of Science

Sure, the recently announced Nobel Prizes are a big deal, but the 2020 Ig Nobel Prizes bring a little lightness during these heavy times

By Kathleen Apakupakul

What does the size of your eyebrows have to do with how vain you are?  What does kissing have to do with how well your country’s economy is faring?  While the 2020 Nobel Prizes have just been announced, these studies and others are winners in this year’s Ig Nobel prizes, which were announced last month.  With the heaviness of recent world events, the 2020 Ig Nobel prize announcement is a welcome respite to introduce some levity into our lives.

The Ig Nobel Prizes have been awarded annually since 1991 to honor ten unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research and are intended to “celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative, and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.”   Each year ten prizes from some 9,000 nominations are awarded based on one criterion, which is that the achievements “should make people laugh, and then think.”  Marc Abrahams, editor and founder of the scientific humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research and founder and master of ceremonies for the Ig Nobel award ceremony, stated that both good and bad achievements can be odd, funny, and even absurd, and this silliness is critical to boosting public interest in science.  In many cases, the perceived absurdity may be due to lack of context.  For example, a past award study that asked, “why don’t woodpeckers get headaches?” has gained more attention when people became curious as to what happens to the brains of athletes with repeated blows to the head.

This year’s awardees include:

An international team won in the field of Acoustics for inducing a female Chinese alligator to bellow in an airtight chamber filled with helium-enriched air.  Investigators wanted to find out if crocodiles produce loud noises during mating season, and if their communications related to their body size.

Researchers in Canada were awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology for devising a method to identify narcissists by examining their eyebrows.  They reasoned that narcissists may “seek to maintain distinct eyebrows to facilitate others’ ability to notice, recognize, and remember them, increasing their likability and reinforcing their overly positive self-reviews.”

The governments of India and Pakistan won this year’s Ig Nobel Peace Prize for having their diplomats ring each other’s doorbells in the middle of the night, and then run away before anyone had a chance to answer the door, as described in several news reports.

A team from Swinburne University won in Physics for determining, experimentally, what happens to the shape of a living earthworm when one vibrates the earthworm at high frequency.  The work was inspired by the idea that nerve pulses moving in our brains consist of sound waves as well as electrical impulses.  The team wondered if Faraday-like waves would form in earthworms in the same way they do when vibrating liquid droplets.  In order to anesthetize the earthworms to relax their muscles, the researchers used vodka and then measured their movements using a laser.  In essence, drunk earthworms vibrating on a sub-woofer are liquid drops contained within an elastic cylinder. 

An international team won the award in Economics for quantifying the relationship between the national income inequality of several countries and the average amount of mouth-to-mouth kissing.  The study was an online survey of kissing habits of more than 3000 people in 13 countries, to determine if kissing was essential to maintaining long-term relationships.  The data showed that people engaged in kissing more frequently in economically harsher environments.

In the category of Management, several Chinese hit men were awarded for continually subcontracting a hit job, with the end result of no one actually committing the murder.

Six-legged insects not as distressing as eight-legged spiders. Photo by Ben Lybarger

Richard S. Vetter of the University of California, Riverside, won this year’s Entomology prize for collecting evidence that many entomologists are afraid of spiders, which are not insects.  He concluded that a fear of spiders from an early age was not overcome by a career handling insects.  

Researchers at the University of Amsterdam won an Ig Nobel prize in Medicine for diagnosing an unrecognized medical condition, misophonia, or the distress at hearing other people making chewing sounds.

In the arena of Materials Science, a team from Kent State University showed that knives manufactured from frozen human feces do not work well.  This was prompted by a well-known tale of an Inuit man who used a knife fashioned from his own frozen feces and then used it to butcher a dog and transform its body into a sled and harness.

Finally, in acknowledgement of the pandemic, several world leaders including Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, Vladimir Putin, and Narendra Modi won in the area of Medical Education for using the coronavirus pandemic to teach the world that politicians can have a more immediate effect of life and death than can scientists and doctors.  None of the awardees collected their prize for this achievement.

 A gala ceremony organized by the Annals of Improbable Research typically occurs every September at Harvard University.  However, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s gala, the 30th First [sic] Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, happened entirely online for the first time. 

The actual prize itself is different from year to year, and is usually handmade from extremely cheap materials that are presented to the winners by actual Nobel laureates.  This year’s winners won a paper cube (that the winners had to print out and fold for themselves) and a 10 trillion dollar note from Zimbabwe.  The webcast of this year’s entire award ceremony is now available online, and highlights of the Ig Nobel awards can also be heard on November 27, the day after Thanksgiving, in a special radio broadcast of National Public Radio’s program Science Friday. 

Congratulations to all of this year’s winners!

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