The Ig Nobel Prizes are an annual highlight of my academic calendar. I anticipate the event quite eagerly and, for the last two years, I have even live-streamed the ceremony. The premise of celebrating research that makes one ‘laugh and then think’ is laudable: at the very least, it means research doesn’t always have to seem boring, but can — given the right communication — be as entertaining as it is enlightening. Moreover, the Ig Nobel Prizes celebrate a sense of surprise and wonder: the weird and eccentric discoveries that are the most amusing are those which are either completely unforeseen or bizarrely counter-intuitive. It is an absolute coup of science communication. But above all, I feel researchers should be willing and able to laugh at themselves: it is at once an exercise in humility and democracy, as one must never elevate one’s own mind or one’s work above the scope of humour, satire or wider comprehension. Nothing captures this notion of humility better than the 2005 Nobel laureate in Physics, Roy Glauber, sweeping the paper aeroplanes off the floor of the auditorium each year after the ceremony.
I really enjoy the Ig Nobel’s traditional silliness: every ceremony is called the ‘nth First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony,’ the paper aeroplane throwing, the speeches that are hollowed out and stripped down, the hilarious mini-operas, the crowd cheering at each mention of the theme word, just the spectacle of the whole thing, et cetera. It’s all a very high-brow piss-take done not in a spirit of mockery or derision, but respect, admiration and a shared sense of curiosity. And last night’s ceremony was nothing short.
As for the Ig Nobel laureates from last night, one of my predictions did not come true (Christopher Daily-Diamond, et al.’s work on why shoelaces untie themselves winning for Physics). But I was thrilled that Marc-Antoine Fardin won the Physics prize for his work on whether or not cats ‘flow’. (I have blogged about this study in the past.) The most astonishing prize of the night, for me, was the obstetrics prize to Marisa López-Teijón for discovering that foetuses respond better to intravaginal musical stimulation than music played on the mother’s belly, and for consequently developing the ‘baby pod’, a ‘foetal acoustic stimulation device’. This discovery of the ability for foetuses to perceive music has profound implications for our understanding of infant development and cognition. But I wonder what impact this discovery would have on the purported ‘Mozart effect’. But of course, each of the ten studies that won a prize was hilarious and engaging: ‘reptilian arousal’ through contact with a crocodile influencing people’s gambling habits, an fMRI study of people’s disgust for cheese, or the study that identical twins cannot tell themselves apart. A full list of winners, along with links to the respective studies, is on the Ig Nobel web site at the Annals of Improbable Research.
There are two reasons the Ig Nobel Prizes astonish me every year: first of all, I marvel at the sheer scale of academic curiosity on display, as the kinds of research that the Prizes recognise are incredibly eccentric. My past favourites include the 2015 Physics prize to Patricia Yang, et al, for discovering the principle that all mammals take 21 seconds to empty their bladders, the 2005 Public Health prize to Jillian Clarke for her investigation of the scientific validity of the five-second rule, and the 1996 Literature prize to the editors of the journal Social Text for the infamous Sokal Affair. And though not strictly ‘research’, some of my other favourite nominees include the 2005 Literature prize to the authors of Nigerian scam emails for the motley bunch of characters that they created, and the 2004 Economics prize to the Vatican for outsourcing prayers to India. The tag line of the Ig Nobel prizes is that it is for research that makes one laugh and then think.
The second, and perhaps more astonishing aspect of the Ig Nobel Prizes is that not only were there researchers who were eccentric enough to pursue these unorthodox research projects, but there were organisations, universities or individuals that were even more eccentric to be willing to fund this research. This is particularly surprising in America, where all kinds of (particularly federal) research funding gets a bad rap in publications like senators’ Waste Books. Often, the financial means and practical resources are the limiting factor to different kinds of academic research, and it is heartening to see the kinds of punts funding bodies take in the quest for knowledge. Behind every piece of research that makes one ‘laugh and then think’, there’s a team of researchers who first thought of asking what seemed like a very odd question, who successfully won a grant to study it, and then an organisation that was willing to fund this research.
The Ig Nobel Prizes showcase the sillier side of academia, which is oddly where we make some of our more curious and interesting discoveries. It is one of the few research events I enjoy and anticipate with so much enthusiasm. It celebrates the best part of being in academia, the sense that knowledge can be entertaining, unpredictable utterly enjoyable.