The “Other” Nobel Prizes

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^Top image: Wearing his prosthetic goat costume (and a crash helmet for tumbles down steep hills), Ig Nobel prize-winner Thomas Thwaites interacts with Alpine goats in Wolfenschiessen, Switzerland. Credit: © Tim Bowditch

The prestigious Nobel Prizes have been stealing the headlines this week. But two weeks ago, on September 22, an unusual group of creative—and just a bit odd—scientific researchers were honored at at the 26th annualIg Nobel Prize Ceremony at Harvard University in Cambridge,Massachusetts. The Ig Nobels, a parody of the “other” Nobels, celebrate the more humorous, witty, and sometimes trivial side of science. Many of the projects honored at the Ig Nobels are done purely for fun, but the projects (and their creators) are not without merit or the possibility of importance.

Ig Nobel is a play on words—the word ignoble means disgraceful or of a low class. Since 1991, the Ig Nobel ceremony has awarded 10 prizes each year to scientists whose unusual research helps spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology. Several actual Nobel laureates were on hand to present winners with their Ig Nobel prizes.

The Ig Nobel prizes originated with the editors and publishers of the magazine Annals of Improbable Research. Today, the award ceremony is co-sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students and the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association.

Ig Nobel prizes are awarded for original research in various scientific disciplines in a similar way to Nobel prizes, but the guidelines are far more flexible. For instance, this year a Reproduction Prize was awardedposthumously (after the person died) to Ahmed Shafik, who studied the effects of underwear fabrics on male reproduction. His research involved putting underpants on male lab rats. There is no Nobel Prize in reproduction, and Nobel prizes are not handed out posthumously.

Charles Foster and Thomas Thwaites shared the Biology Prize for their efforts to join the animal kingdom. Foster lived in the wild imitating (in turn) a badger, an otter, a deer, a fox, and a bird. Thwaites built prosthetic limb extensions and lived among mountain goats, an experience documented in his book GoatMan; How I Took a Holiday from Being Human. Thwaites wore his goat suit to accept his share of the award. (The suit is on display at the Nieuwe Instituut in the Dutch city of Rotterdam.) Most researchers understand that the Ig Nobels are presented in good fun and attend the ceremony to receive their prizes in person.

Occasionally, however, Ig Nobel prizes are used to humorously scorn a person, government, or organization involved in scientific deception ormalfeasance (official misconduct). For instance, this year’s prize in chemistry went to the German automaker Volkswagen for “solving the problem of excess automobile pollution by automatically, electromechanically producing fewer emissions whenever the cars are being tested.” In 2015, it was discovered that Volkswagen had cheated on emissions tests, hiding the amount of pollution produced by its vehicles. Volkswagen paid $15 billion in fines for the cheating scheme, but the company declined to send a representative to accept its Ig Nobel prize.

While many of the prize-winning topics sound funny, they actually demonstrate imaginative scientific methods of answering tough questions. The Ig Nobel prizes are awarded to research that makes people laugh—and think. Such research is not likely to be honored by more prestigious scientific awards, but it is still worthy of recognition. Some of the research, in fact, turns out to be scientifically valuable.

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