The Ig Nobel Prize: making people laugh and think


The Ig Nobel prize shows us that science can be engaging, funny and important too. Sean McKernan gives us a closer look.

If asked how to end war most people would recommend banning weapons. But a group in Ohio came up with an altogether different strategy. They planned to make a weapon that would make enemy troops uncontrollably attracted to each other. They took the term ‘make love, not war’ literally, and for doing so they won the 2007 Ig Nobel prize for peace.

The Ig Nobel prize is a parody of the Nobel Prize given out each year for ten achievements of scientific research that have a humorous side. The ten awards given out are the same as the Nobel Prizes: including Chemistry, Physics, Medicine/Physiology, Economics and Peace and Literature.

The award was created in 1991 by the journal Annals of Improbable Research, to showcase the world’s most ridiculous, funny research. The Ig Nobel prize has the aim of “first making people laugh, and then making them think”. The latest ceremony took place at Harvard University, Massachusetts at the beginning of this month.

This year, award-winning research included a study proving fleas can jump higher on dogs than cats, the discovery that Coca-Cola is an effective spermicide and the discovery that exotic dancers earn more when at the peak of their fertility. There was also an experiment in which mould navigated its way around a maze.

Award-winning research included the discovery that Coca-Cola is an effective spermicide and the discovery that exotic dancers earn more when at the peak of their fertility

In 2007, the Peace award was given to the Air Force Wright laboratory, Ohio for pioneering research on a chemical weapon that would cause homosexual behaviour in enemy troops. In 1993 it was cynically awarded to Pepsi Cola after they bungled a competition. After sponsoring a contest to create a millionaire, they subsequently announced the wrong winning numbers, creating a riot of 800,000 expectant winners.

This is entertaining and provocative, but how does any of this research affect us? Well, this year’s nutrition award was given for showing that food’s taste is affected by its sound. For example if a crisp is crunchy it apparently tastes better!

In fizzy drinks, the louder the bubbles pop the more sugary the taste – perhaps allowing sugar to be removed and aiding the fight against obesity. This research also helps the elderly, as the ability to taste decreases with age. The Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, England used this science to enhance the taste of its seafood with background music that plays seaside sounds – hence winning a Michelin Star. Maybe fast food would taste better if served with the sound of Abrakebabra on a Friday night!

Another piece of research was awarded in the 2006 category of Medicine entitled ‘Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage’. Personally, I’d prefer the hiccups. The 2006 Acoustics winner rewarded a set of experiments aimed at finding out why people dislike the sound of fingernails scraping against chalkboards.

The Ig Nobel prize aims to highlight the fact that science isn’t entirely about awards, furtherand can be fun while improving people’s lives at the same time. Just because a piece of research doesn’t win the Nobel Prize doesn’t mean it can’t win the Ig Nobel Prize!