How do the Ig Nobel Prizes work?

Rewarding Mad Scientists

A proud (or at least tolerant) recipient brandishes a 2007 Ig Nobel Prize.
A proud (or at least tolerant) recipient brandishes a 2007 Ig Nobel Prize.
Stan Honda/AFP/­Getty Images

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 antiflatulence pill Beano. The awards have continued every year since then, recognizing inventions such as the Veg-o-Matic, karaoke, fake dog testicles and "under-ease," perhaps the world's only airtight, charcoal-filtered underwear.

­The purpose of the award, according to the editors of Improbable Research, is to "honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think." Furthermore, they stress that the 10 prizes aren't necessarily meant to pass judgment on the winners. Instead, the official Web site emphasizes that the prizes "celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative, and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology."

In other words, the awards aren't about harmful science or necessarily even about weird or seemingly pointless science. Normally, you might not be interested in chemistry, but Mayu Yamamoto's 2007 prize-winning method of turning cow manure into vanilla flavoring is enough to pique anyone's scientific curiosity. In the words of Marc Abrahams, the Improbable Research editor and co-founder, the awards celebrate "achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced."

If you're reading this article in a laboratory -- perhaps while reclining in your own prototype pair of groundbreaking underwear -- you may be wondering how your own achievements might attract the attention of Improbable Research. Well, anyone can send in a nomination, and you can even nominate yourself. The 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: nutrition, peace, archeology, biology, medicine, cognitive science, economics, physics, chemistry and literature. After each finalist has been investigated for authenticity, the board members cast their votes.

And just who makes up this shadowy board of governors? For starters, some of them are actually Nobel laureates -- yes, actual winners of real Nobel Prizes. Throw in a collection of science writers, athletes, public officials and a random person off the street and, according to the official Web site, you have yourself a team of Ig Nobel Prize judges.

Of course, just like the prestigious awards the Ig Nobels lampoon, it's not enough to announce the winners in a press release. You have to stage a full-blown awards ceremony. Each October, Improbable Research throws the ceremony at Harvard University, with help from the school's physics, science fiction and computer societies. As you might imagine, it amounts to a truly dorktastic party, complete with science-themed musical performances, audience-thrown paper airplanes and riveting, one-minute acceptance speeches by the honored prizewinners. In 2007, attendees even had the chance to bid on plaster foot casts of actual Nobel Prize laureates.

The awards themselves differ with each ceremony, featuring a rubber chicken and egg one year and a cereal box labeled "Ig Nobel O's" another. A few days following the event, the winners get the chance to expand their explanations to a whopping 10 minutes in a campus lecture hall.

­Yet, while most of the winners usually travel, at their own expense, to accept their award in person, n­ot everyone feels honored. On the next page, we'll look at some scientists who just can't take a joke.