Upside-down Rhinos, Men with Beards and Cockroaches on Submarines: These Are the 2021 Ig Nobel Prizes.
The Ig Nobel Prizes are neither Nobel nor ignoble, but they serve their purpose. They're fun! And they make us think about science in ways we didn’t expect.
In case you haven’t heard of them before — and if you haven’t, shame on you! — the Ig Nobel Prize is a part parody, partly satirical prize handed out yearly since 1991 in recognition of 10 achievements in scientific research from the past year. The research is real, conducted by real academics and real technicians at real research labs, except when it isn’t.
The awards are organized by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research, a peer review periodical much like the journal Science, only more fun to read.
The Ig Nobels’ stated aim is to “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.”
Incredibly, it does both. More often than not.
Even when it falls flat, which it does often — that’s the whole idea! — it’s hard not to laugh. The Ig Nobels are designed to bring joy to the most stony hearts.
Consider this year’s award winners, announced just last week.
True, the event was streamed live online, which isn’t quite the same as sitting in a real symphony hall, surrounded by like-minded hive minds who want a good laugh and learn something along the way. Pandemics have a way of ruining everything, so why should the Ig Nobels be any different? Trust the science!
Besides, you know what they say: It’s the winning that counts, not being nominated. And certainly not the ceremony.
In the past, when acceptance speeches ran long, instead of having an orchestra to play the speaker off the stage, the Ig Nobels would trot out a 10-year-old girl to repeat, over and over until the speaker got the hint: “I’m bored! Would you stop please? I’m bored! Would you stop please? I’m bor—“. You get the picture.
There was no danger of any acceptance speeches running long this year. Zoom conference calls have a way of making everybody feel uncomfortable. Most people just want to “leave the meeting” as soon as they can.
The presenters, it must be said, were actual Nobel laureates, which if nothing else proves that even pointy-headed academics and lab rats have a lively sense of humor. Some of them, anyway.
And so, onto this year’s winners.
In the interests of keeping this short, and avoid being bombarded by angry emails from a 10-year-old girl telling me she’s bored and would I please stop, I’ve limited the winners’ list here to a select few.
Lund University cat whisperer Susanne Schötz was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize for Biology, for her analysis of how cats try to communicate with humans, through purring, trilling, chattering, murmuring, moaning, hissing, growling and that oft-used standby, meowing. It was a tough study, because the test subjects were not always that communicative.
The Ig Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to a team of US Navy researchers won isolated a cheaper and more effective way of controlling cockroaches aboard submarines. This is a problem, as you can imagine, and the traditional way of fumigation and old-school pesticides — in use since the mid to late 1960s —just wasn’t cutting it in the nuclear age. Enter a little number called dichlorvos, which turns out to be to submarine-bound cockroaches what kryptonite is to Superman. Who knew?
Well, evidently, not the EU, which banned dichlorvos in 1998, owing to its toxicity. Cockroaches can survive nuclear radiation, it’s believed, but not dichlorvos apparently.
The Ig Nobel Prize for Economics went to Montpellier Business School professor Pavlo Blavatskyy for discovering a link between obesity in a country’s politicians and the level of corruption in that country. The best man — or woman — may not always win, but the fattest seems to get rich the most. Funny how that happens.
The Ig Nobel in Transportation was awarded to a team of Cornell University researchers led by Robin W. Radcliffe, for their discovery that it makes more sense to transport a tranquilized rhino by suspending it upside down from a helicopter in midair, rather than transporting it in a sling. File this one under the category of Good to Know.
And last but not least, David Carrier, a professor of biology at the University of Utah, won the Ig Nobel Peace Prize for his hypothesis that men in the Stone Age — and earlier — learned to grow beards as a way to protect their faces from hard blows during fistfights.
Charles Darwin, a dude who sported a full ZZ Top in his day, suggested beards evolved “as an ornament to charm or excite the opposite sex.” Darwin was wrong! Prof. Carrier charged.
Carrier, alongside fellow Univ of Utah researchers Ethan Beseris and Steven Naleway, proved his fistfight hypothesis by dropping weights from a mighty height onto a fiber epoxy composite designed to simulate human bone, sometimes covered in sheep fleece, sometimes not. The results prompted the scientists to conclude that hairy skin absorbs more shock than smooth skin. Who’d have guessed?
But wait, there’s more.
The researchers are contemplating further studies into whether beards also act as an, erm, beard, by making the jaw harder to target in a fight.
Evidently, Early Man got into a lot of fights.
“When I heard I’d won I was a little nervous,” Prof. Carrier said, after the awards were announced. “I was thinking, do I want this award?”
Now that’s an acceptance speech.
The full list of winners: