The Ig Nobel Prize riffs on the English word ignoble, meaning discreditable, and the name Alfred Nobel. The prize was established in 1991 by Marc Abrahams. Highlighting research that at first sight appears odd or laughable is, however, something he has wanted to do since childhood.
“But I realised early on that this wasn’t something that would pay.”
Do you want to become editor?
After studying mathematics at Harvard College, Marc Abrahams started a software company in Boston. In the early 1990s, he submitted a couple of articles to the little known Journal of Irreproducible Results.
“The publishers called me, and asked if I wanted to become editor. It was impossible to say no.”
They just had minimal resources, and the journal was in a poor state, according to Marc Abrahams. To begin with, he continued working with the software company at the same time as being editor. This was a challenge, but simultaneously a time when much fell into place. This was because the publishers were interested in investing in events.
“During my first year as editor, I talked to many researchers who were doing more or less weird things that hardly anyone had ever heard of.
The idea for a prize ceremony to honour this type of research was born.”
Tickets went in no time
Marc Abrahams considers that he then had some luck, and happened to meet the right people at the right time. For example, he was offered the loan of a lecture hall at MIT’s museum for the award ceremony itself.
“This type of opportunity kept turning up; I also met many well-known researchers, and finally called a couple of Nobel Prize winners to ask whether they wanted to take part in the award ceremony.”
Ahead of the first award ceremony in 1991, Marc Abrahams advertised the event on the internet, which was then in its infancy. Tickets were free, but you had to turn up to collect them in person at a given time. They all went in no time. Many journalists were also interested, and the award ceremony was highly publicised in the media.
“During the first year, we were expecting someone to come in and tell us to stop. But it was a success, and the next year we could continue building on the concept.”
Mixed reactions to begin with
To begin with, the Ig Nobel Prize received mixed reactions. Many thought it was fun, but there were also those who thought it was a way of trivialising science and research. In the fifth year of the prize, the then British chief scientific adviser did not want the country’s researchers to be awarded the Ig Nobel Prize.
“I thought he was joking, and told several journalists. They wrote about it, so we got even more publicity.”
But exactly because of this type of reaction, as well as a certain scepticism from the research community to begin with, Marc Abrahams has been very careful to involve well-known researchers. This gives greater gravitas to the award ceremony, and also shows these personalities in a different light.
In recent years, the Ig Nobel Prize has become prestigious, and is for example recognised by the researchers’ universities via press releases.
Revenge for boring lectures
Marc Abrahams describes the award ceremony as a revenge for all the long and boring lectures that he and other students were forced to endure during their studies. In addition to the prize giving, lots of other things happen on stage: the audience is encouraged to throw paper darts, and well-known researchers behave in unusual ways.
“Every year, a senior and well-respected researcher gives the opening address. The person is accompanied onto the stage, and everybody thinks that an interminable speech will now follow. This isn’t quite what happens, and this is always a feature that lightens the mood.”
The audience consists of researchers and their friends and relations. According to Marc Abrahams, the greatest attraction is the fact that the prize ceremony is fun. It therefore attracts a mixture of different groups that would otherwise not meet in academia.
The prize winners receive a homemade cup from the hands of a Nobel Prize winner, and then presents their own research in one minute. Once time is up, they are stopped by a child, shouting “Please stop, I’m bored!”.
More than 10 000 nominations
After four years as editor-in-chief at Journal of Irreproducible Results, Marc Abrahams started his own journal, Annuals of Improbable Research (AIR). Each year, the journal’s editors and editorial committee chooses the winners of the Ig Nobel Prize. Anyone can nominate winners, and every year the editors receive more than 10 000 nominations, of which many are self-nominations.
“We fight a lot about who will be awarded the prize. The only criterion is that you have to laugh first, and then think.”
Those who nominate themselves hardly ever win a prize. Nor should winning an Ig Nobel Prize be the goal of the research project, Marc Abrahams considers. The secret is often that the prize winners themselves do not realise that what they have done seems funny to others.
“Often, it is only when I call to tell them that that have been awarded the prize that they realise that they have done something that makes other people laugh. Most are really pleased that someone has noticed their research, and decide to accept the prize.”
The prize is kept secret until the last moment Not even the Nobel Prize winners who give out the prizes on stage know who they will be meeting. The selected prize winners are telephoned very discreetly, and they can turn down the prize.
A chance to talk about your research
As the event is monitored by many journalists, it is also a good occasion for the researchers to spend time on science communication.
“We encourage the prize winners to take the opportunity and also talk about other things they have done. In this way, the prize can function as a door-opener.”
One such example is the Dutch researcher Kees Moeliker, who was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in Biology in 2003. He published his slightly unexpected observation of homosexual ducks who engage in necrophily.
“When he presented his research in one minute, I realised that he is really good at popularising science. He was serious, at the same time as talking of something so weird and funny.”
Since winning the Ig Nobel Prize, Moeliker has written books and been interviewed by many newspapers.
Andre Geim is the only researcher to date who has been awarded both the Ig Nobel Prize and the real Nobel Prize. In 2010, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics, for the discovery of graphene. But by then, he had already been awarded an Ig Nobel Prize ten years earlier for his research on how to make frogs hover.
Bra became a facemask for two
Marc Abrahams has difficulty choosing any favourites from all the research that has been awarded the Ig Nobel Prize over the years.
“It’s like asking if I have a favourite child.”
But even so, he does have some favourites. One example is Elena Bodnar’s discovery that you can construct an excellent facemask for two persons from a bra.
She often participates and demonstrates this when Marc Abrahams is touring to talk about the Ig Nobel Prize. Elena Bodnar then chooses the most imposing person in the audience, who happily but slightly self-consciously gets to share a facemask with her.
While this is an amusing feature, there is a serious story behind it. Elena Bodnar is from Ukraine, and got the idea after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. Many lives could have been saved if more people had had access to gasmasks right after the explosion.
“This is the type of research that the Ig Nobel Prize is all about. Laugh first, then think.”