On the morning of April 13, 1888, successful inventor of explosives, Alfred Nobel picked up his copy of the morning paper and found something few ever have the opportunity to read: his own obituary notice. “The Merchant of Death is Dead,” the headline read and the article went on to explain, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding more ways to kill people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”
A Nobel had died the previous day, but it was Alfred’s older brother Ludvig, a successful businessman and inventor in his own right. Though Alfred was still very much alive (and would be for another eight and a half years) the mistake was devastating to the inventor whose drive had largely been to develop safer ways to produce and use explosives.
Determined that he would not be remembered as “The Merchant of Death,” Nobel changed his will to leave 94% of his wealth (which was a lot) to the establishment of an award designed to honor great achievements in various scientific and cultural categories.
So since 1901, the Nobel prizes have been awarded on December 10th, with announcements happening sometime in early October. But since 1991, there has been an even more impressive presentation of awards given just prior to the Nobel announcements, called the Ig Nobel Prize Awards.
While the type of scientific research that now claims the attention of the Nobel committee may be somewhat difficult for us regular shlubs to fully understand, the Ig Nobels (or Igs for short) are designed to recognize research that “first makes people laugh and then makes them think.”
Last year’s winners include a group of Japanese scientists who formally studied just how slippery a banana peel discarded on the floor actually is, a pair from the US and India that teamed up to study whether nosebleeds might be effectively treated by packing one’s nose with strips of cured pork, and nutrition researchers from Spain who studied the viability of using bacteria isolated from baby poop as probiotic starter cultures for use in the production of fermented sausages.
That’s just a FEW of the scientific advances celebrated in just ONE year of the Igs. The tradition of the Ig Nobels was begun by editors of the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research and it has been pretty widely embraced by the scientific community, with the awards presentation being hosted by Nobel laureates and with most recipients (who do have the option of declining the nomination) graciously accepting their awards, often in-person.
Because the thing about scientific research is that sometimes it’s the bizarre or trivial questions that lead to discoveries that really do change the world. The 2006 winner of the biology Ig was a multinational group of researchers who determined that the female mosquito responsible for transmitting malaria is every bit as attracted to Limburger cheese as it is to the smell of human feet. A worthy study it was, because the findings have led to new developments in the control of mosquito populations in the ongoing battle against malaria in Africa.
And in 2011, a researcher from Stanford University won the Ig in Literature for his “Theory of Structured Procrastination,” in which he suggests that highly accomplished people work best when they “work on something important as a way to avoid working on something that’s even more important,” which is why I am taking the time to blog about the Ig Nobel Prize when I should be writing a novel.
I’m also writing this because in the next few weeks we will learn who the world-changers are that the Nobel Committee has decided deserve to have the title of “Nobel laureate” in the headlines of their obituaries, but before that can happen, on this very night at Harvard’s Sander’s Theater, the 25th annual Ig Nobel awards ceremony will take center stage.
If you forgot to get your tickets, don’t worry. You’ll be able to catch a radio broadcast of this important event on NPR’s Science Friday the day after Thanksgiving. It’s sure to be a doozy of a ceremony and it will end with the traditional words: “If you didn’t win a prize — and especially if you did — better luck next year!”
If you’re interested (and you know you are), here’s a link to the full list of Ig Nobel Prize winning studies.