Would That You
Won an Ig?
What, Where, When, Why,
by Marc Abrahams
© 2000 Marc Abrahams
|This essay was written for HMSBeagle,
where it originally appeared on September 29, 2000, in Issue
You're waiting for the phone call from Sweden. You've been anticipating
this all your professional life - and maybe even before that.
The phone call comes, all right. But it's not from Sweden. It's
from Cambridge, the Cambridge in Massachusetts. "Congratulations,"
a pleasant voice says. "You have won a prize." After
a lengthy, very nice chat, you go make yourself a cup of tea.
"What does it really mean?" you wonder.
That's such a simple question and such a good one. What does it
mean to win an Ig Nobel Prize?
An Ig Nobel Prize just might be a good thing.
I've given that question some thought. I am the pleasant voice
on the other end of that phone call. It's my job to assure you
that your life is still in good shape, that the end is not nigh,
and that, yes, an Ig Nobel Prize just might be a good thing to
have on your CV and on your bookshelf.
Talk to almost any of last year's winners and you'll see.
Talk to Steve Penfold, of York University, who won a 1999 Ig Nobel
Prize because he was (and still is!) doing his Ph.D. thesis on
the sociology of Canadian donut shops. Penfold attended the ceremony
last year and gave a wonderful acceptance speech.
Igs fit Fisher and Vanden-Broeck to a tea.
Talk to Len Fisher of Bath, England, and Sydney, Australia, who
calculated the optimal way to dunk a biscuit and who shared his
1999 Ig Nobel Physics Prize with Jean-Marc Vanden-Broeck of the
University of East Anglia, England, and Belgium (Vanden-Broeck
calculated how to make a teapot spout that does not drip). Fisher
attended the ceremony last year and gave a wonderful acceptance
Talk to the British Standards Institution, which won the 1999
Ig Nobel Literature Prize for its six-page specification (BS-6008)
of the proper way to make a cup of tea. A representative of the
BSI attended the ceremony last year and gave a wonderful acceptance
The Kansas State Board of Ed was a sore winner.
Talk to the Kansas State Board of Education and the Colorado State
Board of Education, which shared the 1999 Ig Nobel Science Education
Prize for mandating that children should not believe in Darwin's
theory of evolution any more than they should believe in Newton's
theory of gravitation, Faraday's and Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism,
or Pasteur's theory that germs cause disease. Well, maybe you
won't talk to them - neither of these cowinners seemed especially
excited at their achievements. (Anyway, you might have a hard
time finding all of the Colorado winners - many of them were voted
out of office in the recent Colorado state election.)
But, by all means, do talk to Arvid Vatle of Stord, Norway, who
won the 1999 Ig Nobel Medicine Prize for carefully collecting,
classifying, and contemplating which kinds of containers his patients
chose when submitting urine samples. Vatle attended the ceremony
last year and gave a wonderful acceptance speech. He also gave
a lecture at Harvard Medical School.
The Chemistry Ig recognized the S-check underwear checker.
Talk to Takeshi Makino, president of the Safety Detective Agency
in Osaka, Japan, who won the 1999 Ig Nobel Chemistry Prize for
his involvement with S-check, an infidelity detection spray that
wives can apply to their husbands' underwear. Makino attended
the ceremony last year and gave a wonderful acceptance speech.
Talk to Paul Bosland, director of the Chile Pepper Institute,
New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, New Mexico, who won the
1999 Ig Nobel Biology Prize for breeding a spiceless jalapeno
chile pepper. Bosland attended the ceremony last year and gave
a wonderful acceptance speech.
Perfumery was Kwon's strong suit.
Talk to Hyuk-ho Kwon of Kolon Company of Seoul, Korea, who won
a 1999 Ig Nobel Prize for inventing the self-perfuming business
suit. Kwon attended the ceremony last year and gave a wonderful
Talk to Charl Fourie and Michelle Wong of Johannesburg, South
Africa, who won the 1999 Ig Nobel Peace Prize for inventing an
automobile burglar alarm consisting of a detection circuit and
Spin that baby out.
And talk to the family of the late George and Charlotte Blonsky
of New York City and San Jose, California. George and Charlotte
won a 1999 Ig Nobel Prize for inventing a device (U.S. Patent
#3,216,423) to aid women in giving birth - the woman is strapped
onto a circular table, and the table is then rotated at high speed.
The Blonskys' niece and nephew attended the ceremony last year
and gave a wonderful acceptance speech on their behalf.
And after you have talked to these people and listened to what
they have to say, and marveled at the wonders of human imagination,
initiative, and resolve, take another sip of tea. Ponder, again,
what it means to win an Ig Nobel Prize.
Ig Nobels honor "achievements that cannot or should not
This is the 10th year we've been awarding Ig Nobel prizes. Each
year, 10 prizes are awarded. The selection criterion is simple.
The prizes are for "achievements that cannot or should not
be reproduced." Examine that phrase carefully. It covers
a lot of ground. It says nothing as to whether a thing is good
or bad, commendable or pernicious.
For example, after something has been discovered or created, no
one - anyone, anywhere, ever - can later become the first to have
made that discovery or creation. The "firstness" cannot
be repeated. Thus, Don Featherstone (Ig Nobel Art Prize, 1996),
the creator of the plastic pink flamingo, clearly qualifies under
the "cannot be repeated" clause.
Not to be reproduced: DNA cologne without DNA.
Similarly, Bijan Pakzad (Ig Nobel Chemistry Prize, 1995), the
inventor of DNA cologne (which comes in a triple-helix glass bottle
and is marketed with the explanation "Product does not contain
deoxyribonucleic acid") also qualifies under the "cannot
be repeated" clause.
And Anders Barheim and Hogne Sandvik (Ig Nobel Biology Prize,
1996), who discovered that sour cream stimulates the appetite
of leeches, beer intoxicates the creatures, and garlic often kills
them, clearly qualify under the "cannot be repeated"
Most other prizes extol the good or mock the bad.
I raise this matter of good or bad, because the world, in general,
seems to enjoy classifying things as being either one or the other.
The Ig Nobel Prizes aside, most prizes, in most places, for most
purposes are clearly designed to sanctify the goodness or badness
of the recipients. Olympic medals go to very good athletes. Worst-dressed
prizes go to badly dressed celebrities. Nobel Prizes go to scientists,
writers, and others who excel. Occasional mistakes and omissions
happen, sure, but these prizes, and most others, are meant to
honor the extremes of humanity - those whose achievements should
be seen as very good or very bad.
The Ig Nobel Prize isn't like that. The Ig, as it is known, honors
the great muddle in which most of us exist much of the time. Life
is confusing. Good and bad get all mixed up. Yin can be hard to
distinguish from yang. Ditto for data from artifact and, sometimes,
up from down.
Your achievement may be totally inexplicable.
Most people go through life without ever being awarded a great,
puffy prize to acknowledge that, yes, they have done something.
That's why we award Ig Nobel Prizes. If you win one, it signifies
to one and all that you have done something. What that thing is
may be hard to explain - may even be totally inexplicable. Whether
your achievement is for the public good or bad may be difficult
or even painful to explain. But the fact is, you did it and have
been recognized for doing it. Let others make of that recognition
what they will.
Every year, of the 10 new Ig Nobel Prizes, about half are awarded
for things that most people would say are commendable - if perhaps
goofy. The other half go for things that are, in some people's
eyes, less commendable.
All such judgments are entirely up to each observer. This makes
the prizes potentially useful in a very nice, and very powerful,
Your breakthrough might go unnoticed.
Say you have done something that you - and some other people -
believe to be very, very good and maybe even very, very important.
But most people don't recognize its importance. Worse, most people
don't even recognize its existence. It's different from what they
expect or what they have ever run across. What you have, you believe,
is a breakthrough. The classic sequence of events for any breakthrough
(1) Most people don't recognize its existence.
(2) When they do recognize it, their immediate reaction is to
laugh or scoff at it.
(3) Some of those people become curious about this thing that
they are laughing at, and then think about it, and so come to
appreciate its true worth.
The Ig provides much-needed publicity.
So there you have a nice little benefit of the Ig Nobel Prizes.
If you've done something people chuckle at and you win an Ig,
then more people will hear about it. And maybe some of those people
will also become curious, and will think about what you've accomplished,
and fall in love with it.
This has happened with Peter Fong's experiment in which he fed
Prozac to clams (Ig Nobel Biology Prize, 1998), Robert Matthews's
explication of whether buttered toast always falls on the buttered
side (Ig Nobel Physics Prize, 1996), Harold Hillman's report on
"The Possible Pain Experienced during Execution by Different
Methods" (Ig Nobel Peace Prize, 1997), and Jerald Bain and
Kerry Siminoski's examination of "The Relationship among
Height, Penile Length, and Foot Size" (Ig Nobel Statistics
Scrutiny can cut both ways.
Scrutiny can, of course, cut two ways. Your great master stroke
may strike some as being less than masterly. So it goes, and so
has it gone, on occasion, for Jacques Benveniste (Ig Nobel Chemistry
Prize, 1991 and 1998) and his discoveries that water molecules
remember things and that the memories can be transmitted over
telephone lines; for Louis Kervran (Ig Nobel Physics Prize, 1993)
and his discovery that the calcium in chickens' eggshells is created
by a process of cold fusion; for Shigeru Watanabe, Junko Sakamoto,
and Masumi Wakita (Ig Nobel Psychology Prize, 1995) and their
achievement in training pigeons to discriminate between the paintings
of Picasso and those of Monet; and for Richard Seed (Ig Nobel
Economics Prize, 1997) and his plan to clone himself and other
human beings. So far as I am aware, winning an Ig has in no way
dimmed the prospects for any of these individuals to win a Nobel
This raises one other matter that should be mentioned. The Ig
Nobel Board of Governors follows the same dictum that is said
to inspire physicians: "First, do no harm."
The Ig Board is careful not to judge recipients.
There are, in this world, people who are quick to judge, condemn,
and punish others. Some of these unhappy people are in positions
of authority and might be inclined to, say, punish and ridicule
someone in their lab who wins a goofy, meaningless prize. Because
we know that such people exist, the Ig Nobel Board of Governors
consults with scientists who are under strong consideration for
an Ig, to ask whether winning might in any way cause them professional
difficulties. In cases where there appears to be a genuine risk,
the prize is not awarded to that person, but goes instead to some
other, equally worthy soul. To date, this has happened in about
Much more common is the case where an individual or a group pleads
long and loud to receive an Ig. This has happened more times than
we can count. So far, only one prize has gone to such seekers
(the prize to the aforementioned team of Barheim and Sandvik).
But who can say what the future has in store?
(PS. Yes, the second half of this essay is cribbed from the one
I wrote last year. When, and if, somebody ever asks me to explain
the Nobel Prize, then I'll write a new essay.)
Marc Abrahams is editor of the Annals
of Improbable Research and chairman of the Ig
Nobel Board of Governors.