Fall is approaching, and hence the annual Ig Nobel Prize is, too. The prize was created in 1991 by Marc Abrahams, the editor of the Annals of Improbable Research. Although its name recalls the Darwin Awards—given to people who help evolution by opting out of the gene pool in accidental calamities of their own stupid creation—it’s not at all so callous. The award is sometimes described as a parody of the Nobel prizes, and in some ways it is. But it also highlights real, (basically) serious research done by actual scientists. In a recent interview on New York public radio’s Leonard Lopate Show, Abrahams stressed several times that the primary qualification of nominees is that their research first make you laugh, then make you think.
For example: last year’s winners in the category of neuroscience included a team who investigated the brains of people who see Jesus in a piece of toast. That research sounds like something from The Onion, but it’s also a useful way of finding out about the neurology of pareidolia, a phenomenon that many skeptics will recognize. Pareidolia is the brain detecting a pattern where none exists, and understanding its mechanisms can giver neurologists clues to how healthy and pathologically afflicted brains work, and possible answers for how to minimize its ill effects.
The 2014 winners in economics figured out how to calculate black market transactions into Italy’s GDP, giving a better picture of the country’s economy and crime.
Winners of 1999’s Biology award had developed a spiceless chile pepper, and 2011’s Chemistry winners created a fire alarm that uses wasabi to wake up potential victims in a burning building. The Biology winner of 2009 was a company, including a doctor who had treated victims at Chernobyl, that had developed a kind of brassiere that could converted into two protective masks in case of chemical, biological, or radiation accident or attack.
Categories for awards appear and disappear from year to year, adding a little bit of surprise. The Literature category comes and goes, and can be an especially fun one. The 2005 Literature award went to the informal computer scientists of Nigeria (scammers) for their prowess in crafting stories meant to entice foolhardy Internet users, but likewise constructed in such a way as to disincentivize more savvy readers who would likely take time and resources to bait and would almost certainly never pay out.
One of my favorites, awarded in the category of Peace in 2011, was described by Wikipedia thus: “[The prize was awarded to] Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, for showing that illegally parked luxury cars can be addressed by running them over with a BTR-60 armoured personnel carrier.” That’s a hell of a study.
And, best of all, fans of the Skeptoid podcast will probably find the annual musical revue, with funny lyrics about funny science, both familiar and exceptionally entertaining.
The awards will be held on September 17 this year. More information can be found at www.improbable.com, and tickets to the awards (held at Harvard) and information about the free webcast of the ceremonies can be found at www.improbable.com/ig/2015/
Check it out!