With more than seven million scientists exploring the world around us, it seems inevitable that some would stray from important scientific theories to the silly, the superfluous, and on rare occasions, the stupid.
For the last 26 years, Annals of Improbable Research, a scientific parody magazine, has awarded researchers with Ig Nobel Prizes, a pun referencing the acclaimed Nobel Prizes, to recognize the most ridiculous scientific work. The awards ceremony takes place at Harvard University — where scientists have won an impressive 49 Nobel Prizes — and recognizes “achievements that first make people laugh, then make [people] think.” The awards are often handed out by Nobel laureates.
Seventeen Canadians have won these somewhat humiliating prizes.
The 2015 Ig Nobel Prize in Physiology and Entomology was awarded to Canada’s Justin Schmidt, who “painstakingly” indexed the relative pain caused by different insect bites and precisely quantified the amount of misery of a bite.
U of T’s own Kang Lee won a Neuroscience Prize in 2014 for studying the brain activity of people who see Jesus in the burn patterns of toast.
More recently, 2016’s Ig Nobel Peace Prize recognized professors from the University of Waterloo, Sheridan College and elsewhere, who published a study On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit — bad news for procrastinating students across the globe that might not be able to disguise and submit their pseudo-profound essays now.
These professors’ efforts might not be appreciated by the authors of 2012’s Literature Prize-winning paper on Actions Needed to Evaluate the Impact of Efforts to Estimate Costs of Reports and Studies. The Ig Nobel Prize described it as “a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports.”
Possibly more interesting than studies on the intricacies of reports are the awardees of some biology-related prizes. Studies recognized by the Ig Nobels range from documentation of the first recorded case of homosexual necrophilia in mallard ducks to the exploration of how dung beetles can use the Milky Way as a reference to orient themselves when lost.
In 2015, other Ig Nobel-worthy studies included the discovery that mammals of all sizes empty their bladders in 21 seconds — give or take 13 seconds — and the observation that attaching a stick to the rear of a chicken results in the chicken walking like a dinosaur.
Perhaps the most surprising of the 2016 prize winners is a British writer who was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize in Biology for his time spent living in the wild as “a badger, an otter, a deer, a fox, and a bird” — unfortunately, not simultaneously.
Prizes are not only awarded for research into parts of science that might seem funny, but also for studying classically humorous situations.
In 2014, the Ig Nobel Physics Prize went to Japanese researchers who explored the friction between shoes, banana skins, and floors — a noteworthy contribution to practical jokes of all varieties.
This is the quintessential Ig Nobel Prize winner: a study that appears incredibly comical at first glance, but a moment’s thought reveals truly important scientific consequences.
The interactions between banana skins and moisture under pressure, regardless of if this pressure is provided by the foot of someone about to fall flat on their face, are similar to those found in membranes where bones meet and in mechanically-engineered joint prosthetics.
Just as important was the 2012 Ig Nobel in Fluid Dynamics, awarded for research into the dynamics of liquid-sloshing in the context of a person walking and carrying a coffee cup, helping us protect our caffeine supply from the threat of spills.
The insights we gain from the research highlighted by the Ig Nobels can be invaluable, even if they result from science that some would deem laughable. This is the idea that lies at the heart of the Ig Nobel Prizes: we can both laugh and learn, if we let loose a little with science.