James Clarke Masthead
September 26 2011 at 11:55

On Friday we’ll know who (or even whom) this year’s Ig Nobel Prize winners are. Ig Nobel prizes – presented annually for the past 21 years by genuine Nobel Prize winners at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts – are for genuine research projects which appear at first glance to be ridiculous. Maybe even at second glance.

The awards are made at a raucous evening during which paper aeroplanes |are flung at the stage and an eminent professor has the job of continually sweeping them up.

Each scientist is given 60 seconds to discuss his or her research project. If they go over time a persistent but cute primary schoolgirl in pigtails with an armour-piercing voice screeches, “Please stop! You are boring me!”

One of the most fatuous research projects was by Peter Barss of McGill University some years back. He did an “impactful study” into “Injuries Due to Falling Coconuts”. Coconuts do, in fact, hurt when they fall from 20m on to one’s conk but the study did not say what one could do about it. To me it seems sensible for people who spend any length of time under coconut palms, such as hula hula dancers, to wear helmets.

Talking of hula hula girls, another winner of an Ig Nobel Prize was a scientist who published in the sober UK medical journal, The Lancet, a formal research paper on “Grass Skirt Burns in Papua New Guinea”.

It had never occurred to me that grass skirts could catch fire, but if I were to begin my career over again I might well become a fire-fighter in the South Seas. All I’d need is a fire extinguisher and a scrambler.

The candidates for Ig Nobel Prizes come from throughout the world and are honoured “for achievements in science that first made people laugh and then made them think”.

The ceremonies are organised by the Harvard journal, Annals of Improbable Research, and include a mini-opera with backup singing by real Nobel laureates, some being deep into their 80s.

The idea is “to celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative and spur interest in science”.

Last year’s winners included two Italian scientists who demonstrated mathematically that organisations would become more efficient if they promoted people at random. A New Zealand team showed that people slip and fall less often on icy footpaths if they wear socks on the outside of their shoes.

Recent winners included a scientist who discovered dog fleas jump higher than cat fleas and one who discovered “how to cure intractable hiccups by applying digital rectal massage”.

One year the Nutrition Prize went to an Italian scientist who collaborated with an associate at Oxford in “electronically modifying the sound of a potato chip to make the consumer believe it to be crisper and fresher than it really is”.

The winner of last year’s Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine demonstrated that high-priced fake medicine is more effective than cheaper fake medicine. The 2009 Economics Prize went to two New Mexico academics for discovering that a professional lap dancer’s ovulatory cycle affects her tip earnings.

The Physics Prize that year went to US scientists for proving, mathematically, that heaps of string or hair or almost anything else will inevitably tangle themselves in knots.

I am sure a South African scientist could win an Ig Nobel Prize for finding out why metal paper clips become entangled in the box. A Stoep Talk reader suggested they are mating and that their offspring are wire coat hangers and the hangers metamorphose into wire supermarket trolleys.

That’s why I always knock before opening a box of paper clips.


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