Mark Twain, a famous writer and humorist once said, ‘Laughter without a tinge of philosophy is but a sneeze of humor. Genuine humor is replete with wisdom.’ The Ig Nobel Prize is a product of such philosophy. The magazine Annals of Improbable Research organizes this event that has been awarding a satiric prize for unique and/or  humorous scientific discoveries annually since 1991. The prizes tend to celebrate the unusual, honor the creative, and pique people’s interest in science. The name of the award is a pun on the word ignoble thus explaining some of the negative reception it has received among the scientific community.

How did the Prize originate?

The Ig Nobel Prizes began with the premise of awarding ideas that demanded recognition but would go unnoticed. It was founded by Marc Abrahams, a graduate of Harvard University who loved to explore things that were unique and funny since childhood. In an interview, Abrhams described that the idea of giving recognition to scientific humour began with some funny articles for an obscure magazine and then imbued books, columns and prizes.

The first Ig Nobel Prize to be webcast was in 1995 thanks to a few computer science graduates of Harvard University. Since then, webcasting has become more accessible and, over the years, the ceremony has gone on to include a musical concert.

The popularity of the Ig Nobel Prizes can be inferred by the number of nominations per year. In 2015 alone, the Prize received 9000 nominations. However, only ten discoveries get the Prize annually. In addition to the event participants, other people are enthusiastic about the Ig Nobel Prizes as well.  In fact, the Ig Nobel Prizes have been highly popular among laypeople as well as those belonging to a scientific background. The motto of ‘laugh, but then think’, garners popularity among teens as well since the award ceremony of the Prize and its information are accessible on multiple social media platforms in different formats.

       Marc Abrahams, the man behind the Ig Nobel. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia

Does laughter advance science?

Regardless of the name, a September 2009 article in The National titled “A noble side to Ig Nobles” pointed out that, historically it is the trivial research that sometimes leads to breakthroughs. In fact, Sir Andre Geim, a recipient of the Ig Nobel Prize in 2000 for his work on levitation of a frog by magnetism, went on to be awarded a Nobel Prize in physics in 2010. He is the only individual, as of 2020, to have been awarded both prizes.

Another embodiment of this instance can be seen in 2006 when a study which showed that one of the malaria-causing species of mosquitoes (Anopheles gambiae sensu lato s.l.) is equally attracted to the odor of Limburger cheese and human feet earned the Ig Nobel Prize in biology. This discovery led, in some areas of Africa, to the use of traps baited with this cheese to prevent malaria.

What are the benefits of the Ig Nobel Prize?

The Ig Nobel Prize acknowledges findings from diverse fields. Some of the fields and the number of years they have been represented at this event have been shown in the diagram:

Different fields and the number of years they have been represented at the Ig Nobel Prizes

Prizes are mostly awarded for scholarly work; however, scientists having other credentials are also acknowledged. Scientific papers are the popular medium for this prize. 74% of the winners reference an academic paper while the remainder refers to news articles, books, patents, reports, or other documents like artifacts, theses, films, or software.

The Outreach of Ig Nobel Prize

The event has been promoted using an array of available platforms. Technology has played an integral role in this regard. The Ig Archive page documents details, videos, and links from past ceremonies. Also, in 2010, Ig Nobel Management Prize winner Andrea Rapisarda made an app of Ig Nobel Prize winners that is available for free on the iPhone app store. Available on this app are a few photographs and videos from past ceremonies.

The Ig Nobel Prize also welcomes volunteers, sponsors, and supporters to increase public engagement. They can easily connect with the organizers using different social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, their blog, or YouTube channel. Books have also been published with write-ups on some winners which include “The Ig Nobel Prize” and “The Man Who Tried to Clone Himself” by Marc Abrahams

The awards are handed out by genuinely bemused Nobel Laureates and thousands around the globe watch the live broadcast online.

The Reception of this event

As hinted by the title of this article, the marriage of science and humor (like most marriages) is not always a harmonious one. It does have some issues that have been highlighted in a white paper titled Pride or Prejudice: How Research Organizations Respond to Recipiency of Ig Nobel prize? by Gennady Belyakov and Sergey Kolesnikov. In this paper, the analysis was restricted to 62 Ig Nobel prizes awarded in 2008 and later.

According to this paper, some organizations acknowledge the potential worth of the Prize while others perceive it as a threat to their reputation or as a danger of having their public funding curtailed. A recent example of such risks is the U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake-authored 2016 report on 20 publicly-funded studies that he categorized ‘hard-to-justify’; among these organizations, some were Ig Nobel Laureates. Although these controversies did not discourage researchers from accepting prizes, they could have affected the willingness of organizations to engage in an open acknowledgement of its reception.

Belyakov and Kolesnikov’s paper also revealed that although the French institutions represent a generous proportion as the awardees they seldomly acknowledge being the recipients of the Ig Nobel Prize on their institutional websites. This is despite the fact that their discoveries belong to the “ fun and clever” spectrum. However, the institutions in the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands were more forthcoming about receiving the Ig Nobel prize. This variation suggested a strong influence of the institutional environment.

Can Science and Humor gel?

In the words of Virginia Woolf, ‘Humor is the first of the gifts to perish in a foreign tongue.’ However, if we understand the sense of humor and its importance, humor can be instrumental in the popularization and advancement of science. The name of the Prize should not have any negative implications for its reputation. If anything, it should be more widely appreciated and celebrated since it does not prejudice candidates on their career status. It provides equal opportunity to all if they meet the sole criterion of making someone laugh.

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