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Ig Nobel Prizes



If you're going to San Francisco
Be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. —Scott McKenzie

A crown of daisies might have been a stylish choice for hippies gathering in San Francisco in 1967 for the "summer of love," but flowers weren't included in the what-to-wear guidance for the Ig Nobel awards ceremony in Cambridge, Mass., last month—unless you consider flowers an "improbable accoutrement." In order to thrill the audience with a "panoply of colors, styles and improbable accoutrements," the Ig Nobel sponsors suggested that attendees "unearth your old wedding gown, uniform, suit of armor, lab coat or long johns." As a result, "1,200 splendidly eccentric spectators" filled Harvard University's Sanders Theater on Sept. 14 to watch this year's 10 winners receive prizes "from genuinely bemused genuine Nobel laureates."

So goes the Ig Nobels. Now 27 years old, they are sourced in the Harvard University campus and the science-humor magazine, Annals of Improbable Research (AIR). The annual award ceremony evokes the irreverent theatrics of such other Harvard satirists as the Lampoon and Hasty Pudding Club. That the Ig Nobels are presented by bona fide Nobel laureates gives the event a highbrow cachet it might otherwise be denied. The playful send-up of scientific research evokes Sen. William Proxmire's Golden Fleece Awards of the 1980s that called attention to such wasteful government spending as the National Science Foundation's $84,000 study to determine why people fall in love.

The timing of the annual Ig Nobels makes comparison with the Swedish Nobels inevitable. You might even argue that the two are complementary. "The Ig Nobel awards are arguably the highlight of the scientific calendar," Helen Pilcher wrote in Nature. "The prizes, which are the wayward son of the more righteous Nobels, are supposed to reward research that makes people laugh, then think." There is nothing ignoble about the Ig Nobels. Wrote AIR on its website: "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." It goes without saying that the prestigious Nobels valorize good science, but I confess that most of them are too arcane for me. I do look forward to the peace prize and literature prize, however.

I was disappointed that no Ig Nobel was awarded for literature this year. Last year was so exciting: Bob Dylan got the Nobel, and Fredrik Sjoberg took home the Ig Nobel for his memoir about "the pleasures of collecting flies that are dead and flies that are not yet dead."

This year's Ig Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a team of six scientists for "demonstrating that regular playing of the didgeridoo, an Australian wind instrument, is an effective treatment for sleep apnea and snoring."

It might have been an off year for literature, but it was a banner year for fluid dynamics. The Physics Prize was awarded to a French scientist who took on the oft-asked question, "Can a cat be both a solid and a liquid?" It can! The answer is determined by applying the principles of fluid dynamics and rheology, the study of the flow of matter. A cat curling up in a basket behaves like a fluid, molding itself to the space, but a cat chasing a butterfly exhibits the qualities of a solid.

A separate Fluid Dynamics Ig Nobel went to a Korean, Jiwon Han, "for studying the dynamics of liquid-sloshing to learn what happens when a person walks backward while carrying a cup of coffee."

An Australian and an American shared this year's Ig Nobel in Economics. They studied the effect of a live crocodile on a person's engagement with gambling. The experience of holding a 3-foot croc affected how gamblers placed their bets. For those with "negative affective states," the bets were higher.

"Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?" Answering that question earned James Heathcote, a British doctor, the Ig Nobel prize in Anatomy. Because the body's soft-tissue parts yield to gravity over time, parts tend to sag. Ear lobes can sag as much as a half inch.

The Biology Prize recognized the discovery of sex-role reversal in a cave-dwelling insect called a barklice. The flea-sized female has an elaborate penis-like structure called a gynosome that penetrates the male's genital chamber during copulation lasting up to 70 hours.

This year's Nutrition Prize honored the research on vampire bats in Brazilian forests that established the fact that they drink human blood. Owing to a scarcity of wild birds, the bats regularly consume the blood of chickens and humans.

The Medicine Prize was awarded to French scientists who used advanced brain-scanning technology to measure the extent to which some people are disgusted by cheese, and the 2017 Cognition Prize recognized research demonstrating that many identical twins cannot tell themselves apart visually.

Lest you have reached this point only to question the practicality of the scientific research sharing the Ig Nobel limelight, this year's Obstetrics Prize will reassure you. Three Spanish scientists took home the award for a study called "Fetal Facial Expression in Response to Intravaginal Music Emission." They proved that a fetus responds more to music played intravaginally than to music from an external source. They subsequently patented a "Fetal Acoustic Stimulation Device," marketed as "Babypod." So when choosing a gift for a pregnant woman, skip the flowers and give a Babypod. The pink, digital-music player has earbuds for her ears and a speaker for her vagina. It will make her laugh—then think.

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