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How do the Ig Nobel Prizes work?

By: Robert Lamb

Physicist and Nobel Prize laureate Roy Glauber sweeps up paper airplanes during the 2006 Ig Nobel awards. The annual awards poke fun at bizarre achievements in scientific research.
Physicist and Nobel Prize laureate Roy Glauber sweeps up paper airplanes during the 2006 Ig Nobel awards. The annual awards poke fun at bizarre achievements in scientific research.
AP Photo/Charles Krupa

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For all mad scientists there comes a time when, in a moment of clarity, they truly realize what they've just spent several years and buckets of grant money working on. At the time, they might find themselves eyeing their new gene-spliced insect feelers in the bathroom mirror. Or perhaps this sobering moment occurs in the midst of an arctic pursuit of their own murderous, corpse-stitched creation. In that moment, reason taps the scientist on the shoulder and whispers coldly in his or her ear, "Dude, you just spend six years researching THIS?"

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What's that, you say? "The Fly" and Frankenstein are just fiction? Real research doesn't seek to answer ghoulish or seemingly unimportant questions? Well, perhaps you haven't read Kees W. Moeliker's 2003 inquiry into the existence of homosexual necrophiliac ducks or James Watson's 2004 study of exploding pants among New Zealand farmers in the 1930s. Yes, science is a big tent and, the more we answer the truly pressing questions about the universe, the more nagging all the little curiosities become. You could say we're fine-tuning our scientific understanding, which sometimes means developing the means to cure hiccups with "digital rectal massage." Seriously, read all about it here.

­Yes, each of these studies actually appeared in a legitimate scientific journal. Subsequently, each has received the highest honor that questionable, bizarre and downright funny science can aspire to: the Ig Nobel Prize. Not to be confused with the prestigious Nobel Prizes -- given out each year for various scientific, artistic and social achievements -- these prizes, as the name implies, award far more ignoble accomplishments.

In 2008, Paul Krugman of Princeton University won the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his research on trade patterns and location of economic activity. The same year, a team of University of New Mexico researchers earned the Ig Nobel Prize in economics for determining that lap dancers ear­n higher tips while ovulating. Both of these studies were legitimate scientific investigations, but only one of them is hilarious -- and that's where the Ig Nobel Prizes enter the picture.

But just who decides what's "ig nobel," and do the winners actually show up for the ceremonies? Read on to find out.

Ig Nobel Prizes FAQ

What does IG stand for in Ig Nobel Prize?
The prize name is play on the word ignoble, which is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as "not honorable in character or purpose."
Who has gotten an Ig Nobel Prize?
Scientific humor magazine the Annals of Improbable Research handed out the first round of Ig Nobel Prizes in 1991, honoring, among others, the inventor of the antiflatulence pill Beano.
Who got an Ig Nobel prize in 2020?
Two of the winners were Miranda Giacomin and Nicholas Rule. They created a method to identify narcissists by examining their eyebrows.
Who gives out the Ig Nobel Prize?
The Annals of Improbable Research magazine receives more than 5,000 new nominations every year, which are added to the collected nominees from previous years. Then, the Ig Nobel Board of Governors narrows the entries down to a list of finalists in 10 categories. After each finalist has been investigated for authenticity, the board members cast their votes.
How much money do you get for winning an Ig Nobel?
Most of the winners travel at their own expense to accept their award in person.