Practically everyone who’s aspired to become a scientist or has delved into scientific research of any kind is aware of the Nobel Prize. It is widely deemed the cynosure of accomplishment in a field, and is awarded to those who make massive breakthroughs in cutting-edge science.
Of greater interest to me personally, however, is the Ig Nobel Prize.
A pun based on the word “ignoble” this prize recognizes and honors the unusual, the niche, the surprising and quite often the outlandish achievements in science. The following is the brief list of my favorite winners, and why I love them.
1. Pizza Protection
The 2019 Medicine Prize winner was Silvano Gallus, for his numerous papers about the effect of pizza consumption on the risks of cancer and death from disease. In my book, anyone who gives a solid scientific reason for why we should eat pizza is automatically one of the greatest human beings ever.
The 2011 Mathematics Prize was awarded to a number of different people from different time periods. A couple of example include: Dorothy Martin, who predicted the world would end in 1954; Lee Rang Jim, who predicted the world would end in 1992, and Harold Camping, who predicted the world would end in 1964 and then later he changed his prediction to 2011. These aren’t all of the winners, but I’m sure you can see what the others’ achievements looked like.
To quote the givers of the prize, they were recognized for “teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.”
3. Pitch Drop
This award isn’t just to an interesting result, it is one of my personal all-time favorite experiments. The 2005 Physics Award went to a pair of researchers in Queensland University for the Pitch Drop Experiment, which was started in 1927. Essentially, it’s a glob of black tar that is being dropped through a funnel. And it’s still going
The experiment averages one drop every 9~10 years. It fascinatingly blurs the line between solid and liquid, having a viscosity 100 billion times that of water. You could observe this for hours, days, weeks, even and see no discernible change in the structure of the pitch. Slowly but surely, however, it flows.
4. Inflated Numbers
So now Zimbabwe is mostly getting by using the US dollar, but remember the time when their currency was so absurdly inflated it jumped up into the trillions? The 2009 Mathematics Prize went to the Governor of Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank, for “giving people a simple, everyday way to cope with a wide range of numbers.”
Many developing countries target inflation to be around 5-10%, and anything above 15% is serious cause for concern in any economy. In summer of 2008 Zimbabwe’s inflation was an estimated 250 MILLION percent. That’s 250,000,000%. This, kids, is why learning basic economics is important, especially if you’re in charge of an entire country’s money supply.
5. Insensitive Incentive
This is probably the funniest one yet. The 2015 Economics Prize was awarded to the entirety of the Bangkok Metropolitan Police. The reason?
Offering police officers extra cash if they refused to take bribes.
I’ll just let you unpack that statement yourself.
6. How much wood would a woodpecker peck?
The 2006 Prize in Ornithology went to Ivan Schwab from UC Davis. Him and his partners conducted research into the headaches that woodpeckers may or may not receive from constantly, well… pecking wood.
Mostly this one appealed to me because I like the idea of a bird-lover caring enough to check if a bird’s head hurt after a long day of knocking on wood. Really shows you the lengths of human compassion.
The Importance of Nonsense
The motto of the Ig Nobel Prize is to honor “achievements that first make people laugh, then make people think.“ They’re a fun, goofy event that acknowledges fun, goofy projects and occasionally blunders in the name of science. But even though these may seem unimportant, sometimes it is the pursuit of the trivial and nonsensical that lead to the biggest breakthroughs. After all, Fleming discovered Penicillin because he was too lazy to keep a clean lab.
Similarly, 2006 Ig Nobel Prize winner was conducting experiments on mosquitoes to see how they responded to different cheeses. In the pursuit of this seemingly inconsequential endeavor, he found limburger cheese and human feet are practically indistinguishable to malaria mosquitoes.
Now, this result is being used and cheese traps are placed in strategic locations across Africa to combat malaria.
So go out there and experiment with something stupid! You never know where it may lead…