An Ig Nobel Prize is to science what a Darwin Award is to survival. These “ignoble” awards are not necessarily mean-spirited research Razzies, as they usually aim to make people both laugh and think. In fact, one Ig Nobel winner has even gone on to win an actual Nobel prize. That being said, the Ig Nobels tend to gravitate toward the laughable, to the point where the Ig Nobel mascot is a fallen-down parody of the Thinker statue, called the Stinker.
In a sea of absurd Ig Nobel winners, the following ten are some of the most ridiculous.
10. The SnotBot lives up to its name
Some scientists get to devote their professional lives to finding a cure for cancer. Others are tasked with combing the oceans to find whale snot. Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse, Agnes Rocha-Gosselin and Diane Gendron belonged in the latter category, but they were set to approach their task with every bit of ingenuity and enthusiasm they could muster. This is how they build the SnotBot, a specialized drone for collecting nasal mucus from large marine mammals … and, shockingly enough, the winner of the 2010 Ig Nobel for engineering.
SnotBot drones are meant to hover above surfacing whales and collect samples from the blowspout they exhale from their lungs. On paper, this is a magnificent feat of engineering and a handy way to collect information from whales for conservation and research purposes without disturbing the animals. In practice, it’s a robot copter for collecting nose boogers. Which, to be fair, probably makes these three scientists the coolest people in the world, at least within the prestigious four-year-old demographic.
9. The Nigerian Prince fictional universe
You have almost certainly read some of the works of the winners of the 2005 Ig Nobel for literature. The award was given to the proud online entrepreneurs of the country of Nigeria, for creating an innovative series of short stories that have been read by millions of people all over the world. These beloved tales feature a colorful cast of wealthy characters, such as Barrister Jon A Mbeki Esq. and Mrs. Mariam Sanni Abacha. Their life stories and situations often vary, but the thread that connects all of these stories is the unfortunate fact that they are currently unable to access their great wealth. It is up to you, dear reader, to provide them with a small amount of money, which they are more than happy to pay back to you a thousand times over (if not more!) as soon as these grateful millionaires get their rightful funds back.
Yes, they gave an Ig Nobel to the “Nigerian Prince” scam. Yes, it’s that kind of award.
8. The “Huh?” study
In 2015, the Ig Nobel literature prize went to Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira and Nick J. Enfield, whose groundbreaking research “Is ‘Huh?’ a universal word? Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic terms” set to find out how many languages feature the titular word. The researchers actually discovered that every language seems to have a version of “Huh?”, which is fairly interesting … or rather, it would be, if it wasn’t for the fact that the researchers weren’t quite sure just why this was. If only there was some kind of short, universal word they could use to express their bewilderment.
The authors of the study seem to have taken their Ig Nobel in stride, since it is the first thing they mention on the study’s website, and in fact use their Ig Nobel notoriety to plug their vastly larger follow-up study on universal communication problem repair.
7. Ratty language skills
In 2005, three researchers from Universitat de Barcelona authored “Effects of Backward Speech and Speaker Variability In Language Discrimination by Rats,” a linguistic study that revealed to the world that rats are sometimes unable todistinguish between people speaking Dutch backwards and people speaking Japanese backwards. Their efforts earned them the 2007 Ig Nobel for linguistics, which the winners gracefully accepted via a recorded speech (no word whether they delivered it backwards).
Ironically enough, the award itself seems to play a lot on language, and particularly how ridiculous the study’s premise sounds. As New Scientist points out, the reseachers also discovered that rats are generally able to distinguish between the two languages when they’re spoken normally, and tend to prefer the one they’ve heard of more … though they’re mostly listening to rhythm and cadence instead of recognizing any actual words. This is a neat discovery for scientists who try to track down the origins of human language recognization patterns, though also a crushing blow for rat trainers who might have been hoping for bilingual pets.
6. The dietary benefits of cannibalism
In 2018, the Ig Nobel of nutrition went to a dedicated researcher called James Cole, who reaped his reward thanks to his painstaking calculations about the caloric intake of meat diets. Still, we wouldn’t bet on Dr. Cole becoming the next major diet guru, seeing as his study was called “Assessing the Calorific Significance of Episodes of Human Cannibalism in the Paleolithic.”
Yes, Cole took a look at the nutritional values of cannibalism, and lo and behold: He discovered that the caloric intake of a “humanitarian” diet is much lower than those provided by many of the more traditional meat-based diets. Let’s hope no one has the bright idea to include this discovery in their spin on the Paleo diet.
5. Scientifically wrinkled sheets
Isn’t it annoying when the sheets on your bed become wrinkled? Say, have you ever wondered about the exact process that makes it happen? N-no? You’ve just been assuming that your own tossing and turning causes it, like everyone else?
Clearly, you’re not L. Mahadevan of Harvard University or Enricue Cerda Villablanca from Universidad de Santiago in Chile. The two researchers have studied the exact process of how sheets become wrinkled in their 2002-2003 papers “Wrinkling of an Elastic Sheet Under Tension” and “Geometry and Physics of Wrinkling.” Their goal was to study the “mechanical characterization of thin solid films,” which is … a fancy way to say “we study how sheets wrinkle,” really. Their valiant studies were rewarded with the 2007 Ig Nobel for physics, which Mahadevan gracefully accepted in person. Villablanca couldn’t attend the ceremony, so he sent his sister. We imagine the words “You want me to do what?” were uttered more than once during that discussion between the siblings.
4. A research material of lies
In 2016, the recipients of the Ig Nobel for Psychology set themselves up for a failure — or at least a hefty helping of existential crisis — right from the start. The multi-national team behind “From Junior to Senior Pinocchio: A Cross-Sectional Lifespan Investigation of Deception” studied the concept of lying by interviewing over 1,000 people aged 6-to-77 about their lying habits and frequency, and observed their lying ability. Over the study, they discovered that adolescent people tend to tell the most lies, and small children and elderly people the least.
However, there’s a minor problem with interviewing a four-digit number of liars and basing your results on their answers, and that hurdle is what made the team’s efforts so Ig Nobel-worthy. Really, the Ig Nobel committee’s reasoning behind the award put it best: According to them, the award was given “for asking a thousand liars how often they lie, and for deciding whether to believe those answers.”
3. Do cows with names produce more milk than unnamed ones?
In 2009, the Annals of Improbable Research (the organizers of the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony) debuted a brand new prize category, veterinary medicine. It’s almost like they already had very specific winners in mind: Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson from Newcastle University, UK. Their scientific study of 516 dairy farmers had a highly specific goal: to find out whether cows with names produce more milk than unnamed bovines. To the delight of animal lovers everywhere, Bessie, Daisy and Clarabelle indeed produced more milk than Dairy Cows 16 to 18, and by a fairly significant amount, too. Over a dairy cow’s annual 10-month lactation period, named cows gave over 68 gallons more than their unnamed cousins.
By now, you’ve probably gathered that many of the recipients of an Ig Nobel are very good-natured about it, and they often turn up to accept their awards in person. However, few have been so game as Rowlinson and Douglas. While Rowlinson was able to attend the ceremony in person, Douglas had recently given birth and was unable to make the trip. To represent herself and her work, she sent a photo of herself, her baby (dressed in a cow costume, naturally), and a cow.
2. Condemning the use of needless, long words (with needless, long words)
The Ig Nobel has some notoriety in the science circles, if only as a well-loved inside joke. Every once in a while, it seems that researchers are deliberately trying to get themselves nominated for the prize, especially if their research field happens to be a little bit off the beaten path. A prime example of this “come on, surely the guy did this on purpose” category is the 2006 literature Ig Nobel, which went to Daniel Oppenheimer of Princeton University.
You really have to tip your hat to the man, too: In a particularly good Ig Nobel year that featured people researching why woodpeckers don’t get headaches, proof that dung beetles are finicky eaters, rectal massage as a hiccup cure and a serious scientific look at why the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard is annoying, Oppenheimer managed to stand out with a fairly reasonable report that basically said that using complicated words too much seems a whole lot like the writer is overcompensating. What made his report a slam dunk for an Ig Nobel was not its content as much as it was its title: “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.” Yeah, let that sink in for a while.
While Oppenheimer may have practiced against what he preached as a bit of an academic joke, the report’s title was clearly funny enough for the Annals of Improbable Research to slap him with an Ig Nobel. And hey, if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us.
1. Shooting art fans with lasers … for science!
Beauty and pain are pretty much the main fuels for art, and science just had to put its grubby mitts on the subject to see where the two intersect. As a result, a trio of Italian researchers put together a study known as “Aesthetic value of paintings affects pain thresholds.” If that headline sounds like they forced subjects to look at art while poking them with needles, don’t worry, that’s not what happened. No self-respecting scientist would stab a bunch of art lovers with sharp objects. They used lasers instead.
The researchers studied the correlation between aesthetic pleasure and physical pain by making people look at both pretty and ugly paintings … while shooting them in the hand with powerful laser beams. The experiment was a success, in that they discovered that pretty pictures indeed produced lower pain scores than unpleasant ones. For this immeasurable service to science, they received the 2014 Ig Nobel of art. Presumably, the Annals of Improbable Research thought that an Ig Nobel of lasers would be a bit much.