Saluting Science’s Silly Side, Virtually

12:02 minutes

In science, there are some traditions: Every October, the Nobel Prize committee announces the winners of that year’s awards, which are presented in Sweden in December. And every September for the past 33 years, a different committee has awarded the Ig Nobel Prizes in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And every year, on the day after Thanksgiving, Science Friday plays highlights from the awards ceremony.

The Ig Nobel awards are a salute to achievements that, in the words of the organizers, “make people laugh, then think.” They are presented by the editors of the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research to 10 lucky(?) winners for unusual achievements in science, medicine, and other fields. This year’s ceremony was held virtually, with a webcast taking the place of the traditional raucous ceremony in Harvard’s Sanders Theater. However, it still contained many elements of the in-person Igs, from flying paper airplanes to the participation of real Nobel Laureates in the ceremony.

This year’s awards included prizes for explaining why many scientists like to lick rocks, for re-animating dead spiders to use as mechanical gripping tools, and for using cadavers to explore whether there is an equal number of hairs in each of a person’s two nostrils.

SciFri producer Charles Bergquist joins Ira to discuss highlights from this year’s ceremony.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, hoping you’re having a peaceful Thanksgiving holiday. This hour it’s our Thanksgiving holiday tradition.

That means selections from the Ig Nobel Prize awards, now in its 33rd year. Hard to believe. There have been a couple of times, though, that Ig Nobel winners have been on this program. And it’ll be fun to compare what they said then.

Joining me to help navigate the award ceremony is Sci Fri producer Charles Bergquist, who has been editing the awards for the show for decades, right, Charles?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Hey, Ira. That’s right. This is the 33rd year for the awards, or in one of their long running jokes, it’s the 33rd first annual prize ceremony.

IRA FLATOW: Yes, a decades long dad joke. OK. Tell us, are things back to post-COVID normal yet, or at least as normal as they can be for the Igs?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Well, not exactly. So you’ve been to the ceremony in person?


CHARLES BERGQUIST: Pre-pandemic, they would hand out the prizes, big ceremony, packed theater on the Harvard campus. There was music, flying paper airplanes, costumes, the whole bit, right?


CHARLES BERGQUIST: This year, it was virtual once more. The ringleader of the ceremony, Marc Abrahams, says fingers crossed, they’re hoping that they’ll be back in the theater again next year. But this year’s event was a big Zoom call and webcast.

But the winners were still awarded their prizes by real Nobel laureates.

IRA FLATOW: Aha, right. OK. Remind us what you have to do to earn this honor.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Well, you have to do something that, in the words of the organizers, first makes you laugh and then makes you think. Anyone can nominate somebody for the prize. But the decisions get made in secret by a committee of editors of a science humor magazine, The Annals of Improbable Research.

IRA FLATOW: So it’s something that when you hear it, you say, oh, that’s stupid. But then when you think about it, you realize there’s a reason, or it tells us something important about the world.


IRA FLATOW: OK. I was looking at the list of winners and I noticed the chemistry and geology prize was for a researcher who wrote about why paleontologists like to lick rocks. Which sounds crazy, but you know what? I remember back in 2018 when we were before a live audience in Salt Lake City, a youngster in the audience asked paleontologist Randy Irmis about this very thing.

SPEAKER 1: How can you tell, if you’re just walking by, if it’s a rock or a fossil?

RANDY IRMIS: Well, we have a very scientific way of telling that it’s fossil bone, which is to lick it. I’m not joking. I’m not joking. That’s really true.

It’s technical. You lick it. Yeah. Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: So I don’t see that on National Geographic or any– you know.

RANDY IRMIS: Well, maybe their shows would be more popular if they showed that. No, this is not a fib. Rock typically does not stick to your tongue, but fossil bone generally does. And I haven’t gotten any diseases, I don’t think. So there’s actually multiple different types of taste tests in geology and paleontology.

IRA FLATOW: What do you mean? Well, now we’re into this.

RANDY IRMIS: One of the things you want to know about in geology is whether the sediment was deposited by fast-moving water or slow-moving water. And the finer grain the sediment, the slower the water was. And when you get down to really fine-grained sediment, you can’t really see it with the naked eye or even with a little hand lens.

So to tell the difference between mudstone and siltstone, you bite off a little piece and grind it between your teeth. And the mudstone will be very smooth, sort of like a milkshake you get at a fast food place, because they actually put clay in those. And then the silt will grind a little bit and be a little gritty.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So, yeah. You’re right, Ira.


IRA FLATOW: I remember that now.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Exactly. It’s totally a real thing. Here’s Jan Zalasiewicz accepting this year’s prize.

JAN ZALASIEWICZ: Thank you very much, indeed. It’s a great pleasure to have this prize for such a fundamental thing as licking rocks, which geologists do all the time in the field. Because something that’s not very clear then becomes much clearer when you look at it with a wet surface.

I’m a field geologist. I’ve licked a million rocks. About 200 years ago, geologists were licking rocks to find out what they were. With no machines, no textbooks, no microscopes, no chemistry, indeed, they did geology, at least in part, by taste. And it worked.

IRA FLATOW: Who needs the fancy equipment? I mean, this certainly fits the first makes you laugh then makes you think idea.


Let’s move on next. Who else won?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Well, you know how sometimes a word, if you look at it too long, can sometimes start to feel wrong? The literature prize went to researchers who studied the sensations that people feel when they repeat a single word many, many, many, many times. It’s a sensation called jamais vu.

IRA FLATOW: Something like déja vu.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, it’s almost like the inverse. Where instead of getting the sense that something is spookily familiar, it’s the sense that something that should be super familiar is suddenly weird or unknown.

IRA FLATOW: I saw something about the engineering prize, kind of creepy spider robot?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Exactly. The researchers were using dead spiders as mechanical gripping tools, kind of like the claw hand toy in stores. Here’s a clip.

SPEAKER 2: Have you ever seen a dead spider and wondered why its legs curl up?

SPEAKER 3: We did. And the answer led to us repurposing a dead spider as a robotic gripper.

SPEAKER 2: Humans have antagonistic muscle pairs, like the biceps and triceps, which flex and extend the elbow joint. However, while spiders have flexor muscles to curl their legs inward, they rely on hydraulic pressure to extend their legs outward, which is why they curl up after they die.

SPEAKER 3: Starting with a dead spider, we tapped into its hydraulic system with a needle and used pressure to extend its legs. It ended up looking like a claw machine. We call this approach “necrobotics,” based on the source material, a dead spider, hence “necro,” and the application, a robotic gripper.

SPEAKER 2: Using the necrorobotic gripper, we picked up delicate objects, as well as objects heavier than the gripper itself. Because nature creates these dextrous grippers for us, necrobotic components are easy to attain.

SPEAKER 3: We hope that this new field of necrobotics will inspire curiosity-driven research and spark ideas for how we can respectfully and sustainably use biotic materials for robotics.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. I can see Marc Abrahams had a lot of time on his hands this year to find some really interesting ones. And there were a lot of rituals in the theater version of the awards, especially when I was there, like, the paper airplane throwing. And I always liked the little girl who would interrupt speakers who went on too long. Is she still doing that?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Well, Miss Sweetie Poo, there’s been several iterations of her, she hasn’t been around for a few years. But you will be happy to know this year she did make an appearance during the awarding of the education prize, which was researchers studying boredom in the classroom.

MISS SWEETIE POO: Please stop. I’m bored. Please stop. I’m bored.

SPEAKER 4: OK, we get it. Miss Sweetie Poo is bored. But why? And that is a very serious empirical question.

Two papers were cited by the award committee. The first one suggests that we are bored because we expect to be so. We demonstrate that our expectations walking into a classroom can influence the extent of our boredom. In other words, if you expect to be bored by me, chances are you already are.


SPEAKER 4: In the second paper, we looked at how teachers’ boredom affect their students. We found that if the students thought their teachers were bored while teaching, they, too, felt more bored, which in turn made them less motivated to study. We thank the teachers and students who participated in our studies. We also thank Marc and the award committee for overcoming their own boredom by creating this award that makes us laugh, then think.

MISS SWEETIE POO: Please stop. I’m bored.

IRA FLATOW: I never get bored of hearing Miss Sweetie Poo. What about the medicine prize? That’s always a big one every year.


IRA FLATOW: Nose hairs?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Researchers used cadavers to explore whether there is an equal number of hairs in each of a person’s two nostrils. I think we’d better let them explain.

SPEAKER 5: What are nose hairs for?

SPEAKER 6: That’s a very good question. I looked through all the anatomy books. Not a single thing on nose hair. We need to study this.

SPEAKER 5: Sure, that sounds reasonable.

SPEAKER 6: On cadavers.

SPEAKER 5: OK, thank you. OK.

SPEAKER 7: That’s what we did. We studied nose hairs in 20 cadavers and found that there were about 112 to 120 nose hairs in each one of these nostrils.

SPEAKER 8: So we also found that the hairs tended to grow mainly in the frontal location of the nose and essentially only grew up to about 1 centimeter inwards.

SPEAKER 7: This supports its presumed role as a protective barrier from environmental exposure, as particles theoretically deposit more on hairs in the front nostril than along deeper passages.

SPEAKER 6: We hope this research raises awareness of the importance of nasal hairs, especially in our alopecia areata patients, in which their loss results in an increased risk of allergies and infection.

SPEAKER 7: So thank you for this noseworthy award.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So as you see, there was a reason that they were doing this silly sounding thing. They were trying to study whether patients with severe hair loss were going to be at more severe risk of respiratory diseases.

IRA FLATOW: Well, it’s giving me something to talk about over a beer tonight. I think we have time for one more prize, Charles, before the break. Do you have a favorite one?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Well, so you’ve spent time in New York. And I’m sure you’ve seen people, usually tourists, standing on the sidewalk just staring up at the top of a building.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. It kind of makes you want to stop yourself to see if something important is happening.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Exactly. And that is the topic of the psychology prize.

SPEAKER 9: Thank you for this award. The senior author on this publication, Stanley Milgram, is world famous for the studies he did on obedience. Unfortunately, he passed away at the age of 51 in 1984.

I was one of his first advisees in a seminar with 17 students in 1968 when we did this study. We looked at the relationship between the size of a crowd ranging from 1 to 15 composed of members of the seminar. We were standing on 42nd Street in Manhattan, looking up at a building that then held the City University Graduate Center.

We filmed the reaction of the crowd from the sixth floor. As the size of the stimulus crowd was increased, a greater proportion of passers by adopted the behavior of the crowd. With one stimulus person, 4% stopped and looked up, while with 15, 40% did so. This publication has been cited over 700 times, with a dozen times in just the last few months.

IRA FLATOW: Stanley Milgram? The Stanley Milgram?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Exactly. That’s the reason I especially like this award. The idea that someone who’s really strongly known for that famous experiment where people played the role of prison guards and were willing to give other people electric shocks can still get attention for some Ig-worthy research.

IRA FLATOW: Yes, yes, very nice to hear. I think we’ve run out of time. But where can people find out more?

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So we’ve got a link to all the winners, the full webcast, on our site at sciencefriday.com. And thanks to Marc Abrahams and all the folks at The Annals of Improbable Research for their help this week.

IRA FLATOW: And thank you, Charles.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: You’re welcome, Ira.

Copyright © 2023 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producer

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

Explore More