If the Nobel prize is the grandparent of prestigious prizes in science, the Ig Nobel prize is the funny uncle.
Awarded every year since 1991, the science humour magazine the Annals of Improbable Research, awards prizes for the research that “first makes people laugh, and then think”.
Dr Karl won one in 2002 for a survey on why belly button lint is always blue, and this year the winners include how to turn a knob, a moose crash test dummy and gossip for world peace.
The award ceremony is always a doozy. Each winning team was awarded a ten-trillion-dollar bill from Zimbabwe – which we’ll note is no longer a currency.
In other years, paper planes were pelted at the winners from audience members, but this year the event is virtual so the paper plane throwing will be a bit different.
The whole affair is over the top, a little bit nuts, and immensely funny. It’s worth a watch.
But without further ado, let’s get into our favourite winners from this year’s event.
Moose test dummy
The winner of the Safety Engineering prize – which we’re pretty sure is not a real Nobel prize, but who are we to argue – went to a Swedish researcher Magnus Gens for his master’s thesis where he created a moose crash test dummy.
Although the idea of a moose sitting in a car seat is frankly hilarious, the crash test moose was created back in 2001 to be hit by the car – as moose are quite a road hazard in many places around the world.
The Literature prize was given to an international team of researchers for analysing what makes legal documents unnecessarily difficult to understand. The answer is not difficult concepts but poor writing. Oops.
The researchers even did experiments and found that even experienced readers really struggled when centre-embedded clauses were used.
“In a centre embedded clause, you take two sentences … and you stick one in the middle of the other,” says one of the researchers – University of Edinburgh Lecturer in Computational Cognitive Science, Francis Mollica.
“So, it goes subject, subject, verb, object, verb, object.”
The team are currently working on follow up research to look into why this happens, and hopefully ways to fix it.
Regarding receiving the Ig Nobel itself, Mollica was pleased as punch. “I was shocked, I was so happy. I did not expect it at all,” he told me.
“I had been a fan of the Ig Nobels, and so this was an honour.”
Read about last year’s prizes: Our 5 favourite 2021 Ig Nobel Prize Winners
The Biology prize went to a team based in Brazil and Columbia for a study looking at how constipation affects the mating prospects of scorpions.
Scorpions are similar to lizards that they will drop their ‘tail’ if they need to escape a particularly tricky predator. However, unlike lizards, their tail doesn’t grow back – and losing it means they lose 25% of their body mass, and part of their digestive tract and anus. Hence the constipation.
Luckily, the team found that there was no immediate effect on their ability to move, and the scorpions still have a couple of months before they die of constipation to be able to find a mate.
How to gossip
In a personal favourite, the Ig Nobel Peace prize went to an international team of researchers for developing an algorithm to help gossipers decide when to tell the truth and when to lie. A real winner for peace I think.
“I’m definitely never going to get a Nobel prize. This is about as close as I’m going to get,” says Professor Kim Peters from the University of Exeter.
“For this particular paper, it was very surprising. We really thought that this is quite a serious piece of work – that it was quite dry.
“So, we were just very pleased to get it.”
Peters, who researchers human resource management, says that in everyday life, you might use this gossiping model in a different way – working out whether the gossip you’ve been told is likely to be true.
“Sometimes you’re going to go ‘oh, yes, I totally trust that piece of information’, and sometimes you’re going to say, ‘hmm, I’m just I’m not so sure’,” she says.
For example, if “my friend Jane is telling me about Tim, who we both know. And I know that Jane really hates Tim, so anything Jane tells me about Tim, I’m going to take with a grain of salt.”
She suggests that many of us intuitively do this already, but there’s more good news for those that like to gossip, although it comes with a caveat.
“Gossiping is absolutely essential for functioning well as a society,” she says. “But that’s not to say that some people can’t be harmed, and that we need to be careful about the fact that some gossip can be dishonest.”
Last but not least, the prize for Art History went to an international team of researchers for their paper titled: “A Multidisciplinary Approach to Ritual Enema Scenes on Ancient Maya Pottery.”
This one is exactly what it says on the tin… or in this case pottery with ancient people imbibing alcohol through enemas. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Watch the whole ceremony below:
Jacinta Bowler is a science journalist at Cosmos. They have a undergraduate degree in genetics and journalism from the University of Queensland and have been published in the Best Australian Science Writing 2022.
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