Laugh Along At Home With The Ig Nobel Awards

29:56 minutes

We know traditions are different this year. Maybe you’re having a small family dinner instead of a huge gathering. Maybe you’re just hopping on a video call instead of going over the river and through the woods. At Science Friday, our holiday tradition of broadcasting highlights from the annual Ig Nobel Awards ceremony is different this year too. Rather than being recorded live in front of a cheering crowd at Harvard’s Sanders Theater, the ceremony was virtual this year.

But one thing remains the same—awards went to a bunch of genuine scientists for research that first makes you laugh, then makes you think. This year marks the ceremony’s 30th anniversary. 

Marc Abrahams, editor of the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research and master of ceremonies for the awards, joins Ira to talk about Ig Nobel history, and to share highlights from this year’s winners.

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Segment Guests

Marc Abrahams

Marc Abrahams is the editor and co-founder of Annals of Improbable Research and the founder and master of ceremonies for the Ig Nobel Awards Ceremony in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, hoping you’re having a safe and happy Thanksgiving. We know traditions are different this year, right? Maybe a small family dinner instead of that huge gathering. Maybe hopping on a video call instead of going over the river and through the woods.

Well, at Science Friday, our holiday tradition of broadcasting highlights from the annual Ig Nobel Awards ceremony, that’s a bit different, too. Rather than being recorded live in front of a cheering crowd at Harvard’s Sanders Theater, the ceremony went virtual this year just like everything else did. But one thing stays the same– awards to a bunch of genuine scientists for research that first makes you laugh, and then makes you think.

Joining me now is Marc Abrahams. He’s editor of the science humor magazine The Annals of Improbable Research, and you know him as the master of ceremonies from the Ig Nobel Awards. Welcome back, Marc.

MARC ABRAHAMS: Hi, Ira. Happy day after Thanksgiving.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, happy to you. And you know, I also noticed that this is your 30th anniversary year. This is our 30th anniversary year too.

MARC ABRAHAMS: Yeah, this is the 30th first annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, and boy, was it different this year.


Which was both disturbing and a lot of fun.

IRA FLATOW: Well, for our uninitiated listeners who have not heard it, give us a thumbnail of what the Ig Nobel prizes are.

MARC ABRAHAMS: They’re unusual prizes, because most prizes in the world are for the very best of something, or maybe for the very worst. But with us, “best” and “worst” just are not relevant. With us, there’s only one thing that matters. These are prizes for people who have done anything that makes people laugh, then think. If we’ve chosen well, everything we’ve done will make anybody anywhere laugh when they first hear about it. And then, there’s something about each of these prizes that will stick inside people’s heads, so that a week after you hear about it, you just want to tell your friends and talk about it.

From the very beginning we’ve been lucky and worked hard to have big public events where a bunch of the winners come– at their own expense, because we don’t have any money– a bunch of well-known scientists, several of them Nobel Prize winners, come every year and hand out the prizes. And big audiences show up. The first four years, we were at MIT in Cambridge, and then we moved it down the street the fifth year to Harvard, where it’s been ever since, in a big theater with 1,100 people. And they spend the evening throwing paper airplanes at the stage and doing other stuff. And how do you duplicate all this stuff when you can’t gather in a room?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it’s very hard. I remember being on that balcony when you’re throwing some of those paper planes. You have actual Nobel winners involved, don’t you?

MARC ABRAHAMS: Yeah, we always have a bunch. This year was especially sweet, because one of the people who’s handing out the prizes this year was Andre Geim, who, 20 years ago, was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize because he and another physicist used magnets to levitate a frog. And then, 10 years later– which is now 10 years ago– Andre Geim was given a Nobel Prize in physics. That was for discovering the first usable samples of graphene, a two-dimensional form of carbon. So this was his first time coming back on the other side of the transaction of physically handing out the prize.

And I should mention, that was a central thing for us. There were two things that we, in talking it over, we decided we have to find a way to keep doing this this year. One is the paper airplanes, because everybody loves the paper airplanes. And the other is the magic moments– the 10 moments when I introduce a winner, the winner steps up, and then a Nobel Prize winner steps up, and looks them in the eye, and physically hands them the Ig Nobel Prize.

And we came up with a way to do that. What we did was we made a PDF document. The theme of the ceremony this year was bugs. So we made a PDF document that you could print out and then assemble into the form of a box. And each side of that box, or five sides of the six-sided box, each have a picture of a different kind of bug– a cockroach, a flea, a Volkswagen Beetle, some other stuff. And the sixth side of the box is instructions on how you print, fold, and attach this stuff into the form of a box.

So every time I announced a winner– we did this by Zoom calls, which themselves were an adventure to organize– and each time I announced a winner, the Nobel laureate would say congratulations or whatever, and then hold up the box that we had emailed to that Nobel laureate who had assembled it, and then shove it out the side of the video screen. And then you could see that the winner would reach out to the side of their video screen and pull in the box.

IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] I love it! I love it!

MARC ABRAHAMS: And it was especially fun in the cases where we had a team of winners– say six or seven people who themselves were probably scattered on three or four different continents. And so you could see the Nobel laureate always kind of gleeful, [LAUGHS] shoving this thing out the side of the screen. And then you would see the winners each pulling it in.

But if you get six or seven people, there’s no way that you’ll get all of them to reach to the proper side. So maybe five of them would reach out to the left and two of them to the right and bring the thing in. It was just really nice.

IRA FLATOW: I understand that you have a story about Frances Arnold and Science Friday.

MARC ABRAHAMS: Yes, I want to thank you, all of you collectively at Science Friday for this. Two or three years ago, when Frances Arnold was announced as winning a Nobel Prize, you guys managed to get her on your program within a couple of days. And at the end of the program, you asked her, now that you’ve got one of these great prizes, is there anything that you’ll be able to do that you weren’t able to do before, that you want to do? And her answer was something like, yeah, I want to be part of the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony.

So your producer sent me an email right telling me about this and said, I think you ought to get in touch with her. So I emailed Frances, and she got back to me right away right after your program. We had some nice discussions. Schedules were kind of crazy the next year or so, so this was the first year she was able to be part of it. And she handed out two of the prizes. It was such a sweet thing all around, that happening.

IRA FLATOW: That’s terrific. We could use sweet things this time of the year, especially this year. All right, let’s go through some of the awards like we do each year. I have you here with us talking virtually together about the awards. There were really some interesting awards.

And let’s start with the Acoustic Prize first, because this really was wild.

MARC ABRAHAMS: The Ig Nobel Acoustics Prize goes to a team that represents the countries of Austria, Sweden, Japan, the USA, and Switzerland. The prize is awarded to Stephan Reber, Takeshi Nishimura, Judith Janisch, Mark Robertson, and Tecumseh Fitch for inducing a female Chinese alligator to bellow in an airtight chamber filled with helium-enriched air. The prize will be presented by Nobel laureate Andre Geim. Who himself has an Ig Nobel Prize awarded 20 years ago. Here is Andre Geim

ANDRE GEIM: Congratulations, guys. A great achievement. Do the same next time, but a little bit better– without “Ig,” I hope.

MARC ABRAHAMS: Now, hand him the prize, please.

ANDRE GEIM: That’s your prize, guys. Very good, with something similar two very important things these days.


MARC ABRAHAMS: Now let’s listen to the prerecorded acceptance speech prepared by the winners.

STEPHAN REBER: Thank you very much. To the best of our knowledge, our study is the first to show that also alligator sounds strange when inhaling a party balloon.

TECUMSEH FITCH: Our question was whether alligators have vocal track resonances like human speech. The key is that sound travels faster in helium. This makes the air passages seem shorter, making the resonances higher. So if you breathe helium and the frequency shifts upward. That shows that there are resonances. The hard part is getting an alligator to breathe helium.

STEPHAN REBER: Our subject was a Chinese alligator.


We recorded her inhaling normal air and heliox, a helium-oxygen mixture. And here we go. Here’s one call in air and one call in heliox.


They sound different, they look different, and this is evidence that also non-avian reptiles have resonances in their vocalizations.

TECUMSEH FITCH: We are super happy to accept our Ig Nobel Prize! Yay!

IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] Yeah, I think you don’t want to listen to this one at a certain time of day when you’re eating or something when they make they make those strange bellows. Let’s move on to the physics prize.

MARC ABRAHAMS: The Ig Nobel physics prize is awarded this year to Ivan Maksymov and Andrey Pototsky for determining experimentally what happens to the shape of a living earthworm when one vibrates the earthworm at high frequency.


The prize will be presented by Nobel laureate Eric Maskin.

ERIC MASKIN: Here is the prize. Many congratulations to you both.

ANDREY POTOTSKY: Thank you very much.

ERIC MASKIN: Thank you.


MARC ABRAHAMS: The winners will now present their prerecorded acceptances speech.


ANDREY POTOTSKY: And I’m Andrey. Greetings from Melbourne.

IVAN MAKSYMOV: We are honored to receive the prize this year. We thought that it would be interesting to shake the worm like this. The body starts to wobble, and we use light in the photodetector to measure the vibration.


This should help us to better understand how the nerve pulse is provoked here and here.

ANDREY POTOTSKY: We had some difficult time trying to understand what these results might be good for, then realized that the body of the worm wobbles very similar to the ripples on the water surface. We then estimated how stretchable all the worm body actually is. Just a thought, Ivan– do you think we should try to vibrate other animals?

IRA FLATOW: Now, this qualified– the shape of living earthworms when one vibrates the earthworm at a high frequency. I was thinking about this and saying the scientist was talking about what you could do with it. And I thought, maybe, a better fishing lure.

MARC ABRAHAMS: [LAUGHS] I can put you in touch with them.


MARC ABRAHAMS: They were so excited at winning their Ig Nobel Prize, and also, they were still very excited at the research they’d done. You know, because even for them, it was so unexpected that they ended up doing this, and then the stuff they were finding.

IRA FLATOW: Each year, there’s a theme and an opera. What happened this year?

MARC ABRAHAMS: This year, the theme was bugs. It turned out to be a good year for bugs.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, well, let’s give our listeners a taste of the opera. Is there a name for it, Marc?

MARC ABRAHAMS: It’s Dream, Little Cockroach. Here is a piece of Dream, Little Cockroach.

SINGERS: Yea, yea, yea!

WOMAN 1: (SINGING) Maybe if I came, I was at first raised in the [INAUDIBLE], my life was cursed.

WOMAN 2: (SINGING) Then just like him, my fate reversed.

MAN 1: (SINGING) Once just an insect, now I come first.

IRA FLATOW: We need to take a quick break. We’ll be back with more from Marc Abrahams and the 30th First Annual Ig Nobel Awards after this.

SINGERS: Cockroach, cockroach, [? tell us what ?] to do. Cockroach, dear cockroach, oh, we love you.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, and I’m talking with Marc Abrahams, editor of the science humor magazine The Annals of Improbable Research, master of ceremonies from the Ig Nobel Awards. This year is the 30th year of the ceremony. Give our audience a bit of an idea, how, exactly, do you choose the winners? I mean, how do you find– it must take a tremendous effort just combing through all the journals because the winners all have published stuff online or in journals. How does that process work?

MARC ABRAHAMS: Oh, that’s just the start of it, what you described. We get something like 10,000 or so new nominations a year. Anybody can send in a nomination. About 10% or so of those in a typical year are people who nominate themselves. They almost never win. If you’re trying to win a prize, you’re almost certainly going to fail.

And we have a bunch of people, about a hundred of us scattered around the world. We have lots of little meetings of various kinds. And we argue tooth and nail, and then some, about this stuff.

So we’re trying to figure out, how do you choose 10 things that will be immediately funny to anybody, no matter how much or little they know about whatever it is? It will just– there’s something about what they’ve done that’s just so utterly surprising that it’s funny. And we argue, and argue, and argue about that. And having people from around the world be part of this is a big part of why we’ve been able to choose prizes that work around the world everywhere.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to the psychology prize.

MARC ABRAHAMS: The Psychology Prize is awarded to Miranda Giacomin and Nicholas Rule for devising a method to identify narcissists by examining their eyebrows.


The prize will be presented by Nobel laureate Eric Maskin.

ERIC MASKIN: Here is the coveted Ig Nobel Prize, and we turn it over to you. Congratulations.

MARC ABRAHAMS: The winners will now present their acceptance speech by recorded video.

MIRANDA GIACOMIN: Hi, everyone. We just want to say thank you so much for this award. We are very excited.

NICHOLAS RULE: We just want to dedicate this award to everyone who’s done data-driven research and found themselves somewhere they never expected.

IRA FLATOW: There’s been resistance, Marc, to the idea of the entire ceremony over the years– I mean, one year from the UK chief scientist, right?

MARC ABRAHAMS: Yeah. [LAUGHS] That was in 1995, Sir Robert May. As usual that year– or as often happens– one of the prizes went to a British scientist, or a team of British scientists. They had done an experiment to investigate how breakfast cereal flakes grow soggy in milk, and they were quite pleased at winning the prize.

A few weeks after the ceremony that year, I got a letter on very nice stationery from Sir Robert May the chief scientific advisor to the British government, saying he had just learned about the Ig Nobel Prizes, and this was a terrible thing, and we shouldn’t do this.

I didn’t really know anything about him, so I asked some scientist, British scientist friends about him. And they all said, oh, he’s a good guy. He must be joking. He’s got to be joking. So I wrote him a letter back saying, I’m pretty sure you’re joking, but just in case you don’t know about this, here’s what the prize is, and the scientists were very happy.

He sent me back a second letter far more angry than the first saying, you should not give Ig Nobel Prizes to British scientists, even if they want them. So at that point, I just started telling people about this story. And a lot of people I told are journalists who started writing about this. It was a good story.

So this got attention around the world, and it got editorials saying things like, “Three cheers for the Ig Nobel Prizes.” You know, this is a good example of how people do become interested in science. So we ended up being very grateful to Sir Robert May for that.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to a really special one this year– the Peace Prize about the governments of India and Pakistan.

MARC ABRAHAMS: The Ig Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to the governments of India and Pakistan for having their diplomats surreptitiously ring each other’s doorbells in the middle of the night and then run away before anyone had a chance to answer the door.


The winners could not or would not be with us today.


IRA FLATOW: Now, I’ve got to say, if you ring each doorbell and you run away like we did as kids, and it’s India and Pakistan, I think that’s a better option than a nuclear war. Let’s listen to the Award in Medicine.

MARC ABRAHAMS: The Ig Nobel Medicine Prize is awarded this year to Nienke Vulink, Damiaan Denys, and Arnoud van Loon for diagnosing a long-unrecognized medical condition–


–misophonia, the distress at hearing other people make chewing sounds.


The prize will be presented by Nobel laureate Frances Arnold.

FRANCES ARNOLD: I commend you on this truly impressive and important work, and I award you this Ig Nobel Prize.

[? DAMIAAN DENYS: ?] Thank you.

FRANCES ARNOLD: I need to know, is there a cure?

ARNOUD VAN LOON: Yes, we have a cure. It’s the sound of [? slicking. ?] It is like the sound of stepping in the mud. And if you think of stepping in the mud, you don’t get angry.


DAMIAAN DENYS: We all recognize these annoying sounds of people hearing humans smacking and slurping. But some of us, they develop a severe psychiatric disorder. It’s called misophonia. In misophonia, patients are obsessed with human sounds, and they develop aggressive emotions and finally get socially isolated because of avoidance.

NIENKE VULINK: At Amsterdam University Medical Hospital, our team was the first to discover the full clinical picture, and we traced it back to childhood. And then, we also found the specific brain circuitry responsible for these symptoms. And at the moment, we are exploring the genetics of misophonia.

ARNOUD VAN LOON: It sounds funny, but it’s severe. Patients become depressed, lose their jobs and relations. We developed an innovative treatment using sound manipulation and movie clips.

NIENKE VULINK: Thank you very much for this wonderful prize. And we are very happy with it, and it’s really a tribute to our patients.






IRA FLATOW: I like you that you had a cure in that ceremony.

MARC ABRAHAMS: Yeah, in this case, ever since then, I have been getting a small but loud stream of emails, angry emails from people in different countries saying, I have misophonia. It’s a terrible thing you did with this prize. It’s insulting to the scientists and to the people like me who have misophonia. It’s a terrible, terrible thing to endure.

And I would explain to each of them that, yes, it’s a terrible thing, and also, you know that you’ve seen people laugh at it. But the scientists were not insulted. They were pleased. They took this as an opportunity to make a lot of the rest of the world interested in this.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, they did. OK, let’s move on to a really interesting one this year, Medical Education.


The Medical Education prize is awarded to Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom, Narendra Modi of India, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico, Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, Donald Trump of the USA, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Vladimir Putin of Russia, and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow of Turkmenistan for using the COVID-19 viral pandemic to teach the world that politicians can have a more immediate effect on life and death than scientists and doctors can. The winners could not or would not be with us today.

We want to offer special congratulations to one of the co-winners, to Alexander Lukashenko. This is the second Ig Nobel Prize awarded to Alexander Lukashenko. In the year 2013, the Ig Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Alexander Lukashenko for making it illegal to applaud in public and to the Belarus State Police for arresting a one-armed man for applauding. Congratulations again to Alexander Lukashenko.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go on to the Materials Science prize.

MARC ABRAHAMS: The Materials Science prize is awarded to medicine Metin Eren, Michelle Bebber, James Norris, Alyssa Perrone, Ashley Rutkoski, Michael Wilson, and Mary Ann Raghanti, for showing that knives manufactured from frozen human feces do not work well. The prize will be presented by Nobel laureate Marty Chalfie.

MARTY CHALFIE: Hello. Congratulations to all of you. But before giving you the prize, I have a few questions about your work, and I actually welcome this opportunity to get the inside poop. Did your colleagues feel this was a waste of your talents?

MAN 2: To be honest, I think that this study is really going to go down in the anals of science.

MARTY CHALFIE: I’m surprised you didn’t even get a whiff of success.

WOMAN 3: We got a whiff of something.

MAN 3: Yeah.


MARTY CHALFIE: So again, that you all very, very much, and congratulations.

MARC ABRAHAMS: We’ll hear the prerecorded video acceptance speech.

METIN EREN: Hi there. My name is Metin Eren, and I just wanted to thank the Ig Nobel Awards committee for this prize. And all of the co-authors of this paper also want to give a personal thanks.

WOMAN 4: Thank you so much. This is truly a pinnacle of my scientific career.

WOMAN 5: It is an honor to be an Ig Nobel Prize winner. Thank you for this award.

MAN 3: Thank you so much for this award.

WOMAN 6: It is such an honor to receive this award. Thank you so much for giving us this Ig Nobel Prize.

MAN 4: I consider it a great privilege to accept this esteemed award. Thank you so much.

WOMAN 3: Thank you for recognizing how much hard work and personal effort I put into this research project.

METIN EREN: Once again, thank you so much.

IRA FLATOW: Now, after I listen to this, and all those comments by the scientists, and their acceptance speeches, I thought you must have a bonus prize for the corniest dad jokes and puns somewhere you could have handed out as a bonus for these people.

MARC ABRAHAMS: Go to it. You can think of this as the prize that launched 100,000 puns. Among other things, Marty Chalfie, the Nobel Prize winner who presented this prize to the winners, himself spent a good 10 minutes making that kind of joke during the presentation. We didn’t have time to include it in the webcast, but he was not the only one. Around the world, boy, a lot of people have enjoyed the opportunity to make really bad puns because of this prize.

IRA FLATOW: Now, this next prize, the Management Prize, had a surprise ending for me. I didn’t know where this was really going.

MARC ABRAHAMS: The Management Prize this year is awarded to Xi Guang-An, Mo Tian-Xiang, Yang Kang-Sheng, Yang Guang-Shen, and Ling Shian Xi, five professional hitmen in Guangxi, China who managed a contract for a hit job– a murder performed for money– in the following way. After accepting payment to perform the murder, Xi Guang-An then instead subcontracted the task to Mo Tian-Xiang, who then instead subcontracted the task to Yang Kang-Sheng, who then instead subcontracted the task to Yang Guang-Shen, who then instead subcontracted the task to Ling Shian Xi, with each subsequently-enlisted hitman receiving a smaller percentage of the fee and nobody actually performing a murder. The winners could not or would not be with us today.

IRA FLATOW: And so the hit job never happened. And I’m thinking, imagine wasting all those lawyers; fees for all the contracting and subcontracting.

MARC ABRAHAMS: Yeah, on the other hand, this might be a good lesson in economics textbooks of this is how the economy works. You know, it’s not just the beginning and end of a transaction. There’s a lot of stuff, and a lot of people are kept employed even on the simplest thing.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Let’s move to the Entomology Prize.

MARC ABRAHAMS: The Entomology Prize is awarded to Richard Vetter, for collecting evidence that many entomologists– scientists who study insects– are afraid of spiders– which are not insects. The prize will be presented by Nobel laureate Rich Roberts.

RICH ROBERTS: Well, Dr. Vetter, many congratulations. This is a well-won prize, and I fully understand anybody being frightened of spiders. But I hope you’re not.

MARC ABRAHAMS: And now we’ll hear the acceptance speech from the winner.

RICHARD VETTER: Hi, this is a spider, and I’m an arachnologist. I study people-spider interactions, mostly medical issues, but also arachnophobia. It always surprises me when my entomology colleagues come up to me and confide in me that they’re afraid of spiders. Considering the morphological diversity that insects present– ladybugs, butterflies, beetles, et cetera– that they would just assume a spider into the general arthropod body form situation. But they don’t; they develop arachnophobia, and they treat spiders differently than insects.

So I ran a questionnaire study looking at entomologists who are afraid of spiders. For these people, two more legs makes a big difference. Booga-booga!

IRA FLATOW: Any acceptance speech that ends in “booga-booga” deserves the win.


IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s go to the last prize we can talk about it, and that’s the Economics Prize.

MARC ABRAHAMS: The Economics Prize is awarded to Christopher Watkins, Juan David Leongomez, Jeanne Bovet, Agnieszka Zelazniewics, Max Korbmacher, Marco Antonio Correa Varella, Ana Maria Fernandez, Danielle Wagstaff, and Samuela Bolgan, for trying to quantify the relationship between different countries’ national income inequality and the average amount of mouth-to-mouth kissing.


The prize will be presented by Nobel laureate Frances Arnold.

FRANCES ARNOLD: I want to congratulate you on this truly enlightening bit of work that will change our lives. I award you this.

MAN 4: Thank you very much.

MARC ABRAHAMS: The winners will now present their acceptance speech by pre-recorded video.

MAN 4: Thank you to the Ig Nobel panel for this award and to all my co-authors for their contributions to this cross-cultural research project. Our main finding is that national wealth explains cultural differences in French kissing frequency. People from less economically equal countries report kissing their partner more often compared to people from more equal countries.

An attempt to summarize our research in haiku form– Mountains of kisses, when the many have little, sharing alpine mouths. Thank you very much.

IRA FLATOW: There’s obviously no social distancing or masking involved in this study, right?

MARC ABRAHAMS: Yeah, I’m not sure they could do that study now. It would be much more difficult to do it now. [LAUGHS]

IRA FLATOW: Unfortunately, the mirth must be over, because we’ve run out of time. I want to thank you, Marc, for taking time to be with us today. Happy holidays to you.

MARC ABRAHAMS: And to you. And thanks for keeping things going during this very strange year, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Well, it’s the start of the second round, the second 30th-year anniversary we hope to be together again.


IRA FLATOW: Marc Abrahams, editor of the science humor magazine The Annals of Improbable Research. You can always go to their website at improbable.com.

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