Everyone has heard of the Nobel Prize awarded by the Nobel committee. Not so acclaimed are the Ig Nobel awards given out by Improbable Research. The Ig Nobel awards note scientific achievements that they hope will make a person laugh, then think.
Improbable Research is an organization that collects accounts of research which makes one think, “why’d they do that”? While it may seem pointless, the research is valid may have value.
The organization publishes the magazine Annals of Improbable Research (AIM) once every two months, a monthly newsletter, a weekly newspaper column, and daily blog. The organization has an Improbable Research TV program and live shows. It may be best known for the Ig Nobel prize and the Ig Nobel Awards show.
Marc Abrahams has a degree in Applied Maths from Harvard University. Abrahams had written humorous scientific articles for several years, and in the early ‘90s he decided to try to publish some. Retired Scientific American journalist Martin Gardner recommended he send some articles to The Journal of Irreproducible Results (JIR). Abrahams sent several articles to the magazine. A few weeks later, the publisher called and asked Abrahams if he wanted to be the magazine editor. He edited the magazine from 1990 to 1994. He did software at his day job and edited JIR at night. After four years, the magazine shut down. After JIR quit publishing, Abrahams and Alexander Kohn founded Improbable Research and started to publish AIR six times a year in 1995.
The Journal of Irreproducible Results made a comeback. In 2004 Norm Sperling took over as JIR editor and is being published six times a year.
In addition to writing articles for, and publishing AIR, Abrahams also writes for serious scientific publications. He writes articles for The Harvard Business Review and other publications on science, technology, mathematics and medicine. He has edited several compilations from AIR, and writes an Improbable Research weekly column for The Guardian newspaper.
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The Ig Nobel Awards
Each September Improbable Research awards ten Ig Nobel prizes to insignificant research that has a humorous aspect. Even though this research is humorous, it may have validity. An example would be; have you ever wondered why, when people with ponytails run, why their ponytails swing from side to side instead of up and down? U. S. and UK researchers won the Ig Nobel physics prize for calculating the balance of forces that move human ponytail hair.
The Ig Nobel awards show is held at Harvard University Sanders Theater. Past Nobel and Ig Nobel winners, Harvard staff and students participate in and attend the ceremony. While these awards are somewhat satirical, good research can also be funny. One person, Andre Geim, has won both the Nobel and Ig Nobel awards. Recipients are informed that they are going to receive the award. They have the option to refuse it, but most accept the dubious honor in the spirit it’s given.
The awards were created in 1991 by Marc Abrahams, who is also master of ceremonies. It is organized by AIM. Each year the ceremony follows a preset pattern.
“Welcome, Welcome” Speech
The welcome, welcome speech is just that. The presenter of the greeting goes to the podium and gives the speech that consists of, welcome, welcome, then walks off.
The host introduces human spotlights at the beginning of the ceremony. They are in shorts or bathing suits and their bodies are covered with aluminum colored body paint. They wander the stage and use flashlights to shine a light on various presentations during the show.
Each year the program has a different theme such as “The Universe, duct tape,” or “biodiversity.” Whenever someone mentions the theme, the crowd cheers.
Miss Sweetie Poo
Miss Sweetie Poo is someone whose presence would benefit all awards shows such as the Oscars and Emmys. Miss Sweetie Poo is a young girl under 10 years old. Sometimes there are two Miss Sweetie Poos who work in tandem. When a recipient goes over the allotted time for an acceptance speech, Miss Sweetie Poo stands beside him and says, “Please stop, I’m bored,” in a high whiney voice until the speaker stops. An Ig Nobel referee monitors the time limit.
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Grand Paper Airplane Deluges
Spectators and those in the program are encouraged to throw paper airplanes twice. They throw once at the start and at the program midpoint. The announcer instructs when the audience is allowed to throw paper airplanes at a human target that wears a paper bullseye. The keeper of the broom, physics professor Roy Glauber, sweeps them aside. The moderator warns throwers to be safety conscious while throwing. Of course, the target wears safety glasses.
The program features an original opera on some scientific subject. It is presented in four segments during the program.
Moment of Science
This is an entertaining moment where a professor from one of the science departments gives a scientific presentation. It sometimes involves a spectacular, non-lethal, chemical reaction.
In this portion of the program scientists present their research in the 24/7 lecture format. In 24 seconds, they verbally present a complete technical overview of research they are working on. Then, in seven words they clarify their research so anyone can understand.
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The Ig Nobel Prize
The Ig Nobel Prize is two items. One is a paper saying the recepient won the Ig Nobel Prize. It is signed by several Nobel Laurates. Also is another item that varies from year to year. In 2011 the prize was a small periodic table table, in 2012 it was a grain of sand to represent the universe.
“Goodbye, Goodbye” Speech
Abrahams closes the awards presentation with the words: "If you didn't win a prize — and especially if you did — better luck next year!" The Ig Nobel ceremony closes with the goodbye, goodbye speech, which consists of “Goodbye. Goodbye.”
These are the major presentations at the awards show. There are other minor presentations such as the Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laurate-Contest. Of course, the entire program is overseen by a V Chip Monitor to restrict impure thoughts and language.
An edited version of the Ig Nobel awards program is presented on the NPR program Science Friday by NPR host Ira Flatow. It airs on the Friday following Thanksgiving.