Prizes For Science That Makes You Laugh, Then Think
Prizes went to researchers for analyzing what makes legal documents unnecessarily difficult to understand. And for creating a moose crash-test dummy. And for explaining, mathematically, why success most often goes not to the most talented people, but instead to the luckiest.
If that sounds like a strange set of awards—that’s because it’s the Ignobel Prize Ceremony. This year, for the 32nd year in a row, laureates gathered (virtually) to be recognized for their unusual contributions to the world of science and engineering. In the words of Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research and awards ceremony ringleader, “It’s not about good or bad. If you win an Ignobel Prize, it means you’ve done something that will immediately cause anyone who hears about it to laugh, and then to think about it for the next few days or weeks.”
Abrahams joins Ira to talk about the backstory of the awards, and to introduce some highlights from this year’s online prize ceremony.
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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.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. It’s our holiday tradition, a post-Thanksgiving palate cleanser with highlights from the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, awards for science that first makes you laugh and then makes you think.
This is the award ceremony’s 32nd first annual year. And here to navigate the awards and explain the silliness is Marc Abrahams, Editor of the Annals of improbable Research and ringleader of the awards ceremony. Welcome back, Marc.
MARC ABRAHAMS: Hello, Ira. It’s nice to hear your voice again.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you. Congratulations on 32 years.
MARC ABRAHAMS: Yeah. I don’t know how this happened.
IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS]
MARC ABRAHAMS: But it keeps on, and we’re working hard to keep going.
IRA FLATOW: For listeners who are hearing us for the first time– and I find that hard to believe– what do you have to do to earn an Ig?
MARC ABRAHAMS: It’s a matter of luck. This is a prize unlike any other that I know of because it’s not about good or bad. If you win an Ig Nobel Prize, that means you’ve done something that will immediately cause anyone who hears about it to first laugh and then to think about it for the next few days or weeks. They can’t get it out of their head.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And this year, you had it online again, correct?
MARC ABRAHAMS: Yeah. We normally do it in a big theater with people coming and throwing paper airplanes and all that stuff. But because of the pandemic, haven’t been able to do that.
So for the third year, we recorded it secretly in bits and pieces. The winners are scattered all around the world, AND so are the Nobel laureates who are handing out the prizes. So this involved a lot of logistics.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And I understand that someone who is an Ig Nobel Prize presenter this year is getting his own real Nobel Prize?
MARC ABRAHAMS: Yeah. We had, I think, eight Nobel Prize winners handing out the Ig Nobel Prizes to the Ig Nobel Prize winners. One of those Nobel Prize winners, Barry Sharpless, handed out two Ig Nobel Prize winners. And then a few weeks later, it was announced that he, Barry Sharpless, is going to be awarded a second Nobel Prize this year in chemistry.
IRA FLATOW: Does he attribute it to his Ig Nobel success?
MARC ABRAHAMS: I hope not. He seems [INAUDIBLE].
IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] All right, let’s get right into the prizes. First, let me ask you, do you have a favorite award this year?
MARC ABRAHAMS: No, I do not. One prize that seems to really appeal to an awful lot of people that I’ve heard from is the Economics Prize. It was given to a team of three scientists in the University of Catania in Sicily, Italy for an analysis they did that shows that success in life, in professions, in almost anything– success is far more a matter of luck than talent. I’ll let them explain it.
SPEAKER 1: Our starting point, which is the most important factor to reach success– talent or luck? On one hand, talent, like IQ and the other human features, is a Gaussian distribution.
SPEAKER 2: On the other hand, measuring success with money, one finds a parallel distribution of wealth with many poor people in a very few billionaires, as discovered by Pareto many years ago.
SPEAKER 1: So could luck be the missing factor to get a very big success? To answer this question, we simulated the careers of dozens of people in a virtual world full of random lucky opportunities and bad accidents.
SPEAKER 2: The simple dynamics of our computational model reproduces the real Pareto’s law and also shows that the moderately talented but very lucky individuals are always much more successful than very talented but unlucky ones.
SPEAKER 1: We also show that it’s possible to adopt efficient redistribution strategies in order to favor the success of the most talented people and to foster new ideas.
IRA FLATOW: Hmm. And I think that’s both sad and wonderful to hear. Louis Pasteur said, luck prefers the prepared mind, which means if you’re thinking about something all the time, you’re going to be the lucky one who gets the answer.
Let’s talk about Literature Prize. I thought that was really cool. Tell me about that one.
MARC ABRAHAMS: This was a team of three people published a paper in which they analyzed what makes legal documents unnecessarily difficult to understand.
SPEAKER 3: Why is legal language so hard to understand? We set out by comparing the language in legal documents, things that people actually read, and what people are actually saying. Turns out, legal texts contain far more difficult-to-process features than other language.
SPEAKER 4: To evaluate whether these factors affect people’s comprehension and retention, we conducted an experiment.
SPEAKER 3: We had people read a simplified contract excerpt or a legalese version. We found that people had worse comprehension and retention of the legalese.
SPEAKER 4: While this may not be shocking, it’s important to know how difficult these features make language processing and why it’s happening in the first place.
SPEAKER 3: This way we can advocate for tractable and beneficial changes to society.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. That is deserving of some kind of prize.
MARC ABRAHAMS: Yeah. And now it’s got one.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to another favorite of mine in medicine. A whole bunch of folks from Poland got awards here.
MARC ABRAHAMS: They showed through experiments that when patients undergo certain forms of toxic chemotherapy, those patients will suffer fewer harmful side effects when ice cream is used in place of what were the traditional components of the procedure.
SPEAKER 5: This work is about preventing a common complication of high-dose chemotherapy that you use prior to the Bone Marrow Transplantation. You can prevent mucositis by sucking ice cubes, but who wants to suck ice cubes for many hours? We discovered that actually you can use ice cream– cool the mucosal tissue, and get the same effect. So we would like to thank our restaurant for providing us with free ice cream for this work.
I would like to also thank all of the members of our team who first made sure that every patient prior to the transplant got the ice cream to prevent mucositis and later prepared the publication and were able to publish it with high-impact factor. So thank you all. And remember, ice cream to prevent mucositis.
It’s not an ignoble joke. It’s actually evidence-based medicine. Thank you for that work.
IRA FLATOW: That’s really cool because ice cream, we all scream for, right?
MARC ABRAHAMS: Yeah. Nice bad pun there about the cool. They say that this really has been helpful, that this kind of chemotherapy does damage to the patients. And it’s really uncomfortable, and the patients don’t want to go through it. And their whole memory of the experience is usually just a horror.
But using the ice cream, it turned into an almost pleasant experience. So it turned out to really make a difference and also to prevent some of the physical damage that was happening to those patients. So yay, ice cream.
IRA FLATOW: Tell me how people get selected for this honor, if you will. We had it we had a story recently about cat purring. And one of the researchers had won an Ig Nobel and was very excited to have it.
MARC ABRAHAMS: Yeah. The organizers are always looking around at science journals, and news reports, and talking to lots of people. But mostly, we get nominations flooding in every day from around the world. People hear about something, maybe they know the scientist who did it, maybe they are the scientist who did it, or maybe they’ve just read about it, or whatever. And they tell us about it and give us enough information that we can go and track it down.
And in a typical year, we get something like 10,000 new nominations for Ig Nobel Prizes. And then we do a lot of digging and a lot of arguing. We also look at some of the older things because the Prize is not necessarily for things during the past year.
And we argue a lot ourselves, and we choose 10. And for each of those, in most cases, we get in touch with them very quietly. We offer them the Prize. We give them the chance to decline the honor if they want to turn it down. But happily, most people who are offered an Ig Nobel Prize say yes.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let’s go back to some of the prizes here. There was a Prize given to a whole bunch of people for developing an algorithm to help gossipers decide when to tell the truth and went to lie, really.
MARC ABRAHAMS: Really.
IRA FLATOW: It’s a algorithm that would work by analyzing what was said?
MARC ABRAHAMS: Yeah. It has a lot to do with who you’re gossiping to, and who you’re gossiping about, and whether your gossiping is liable to simply be a pleasantry, or whether it might even help the friendship, or whether you might be doing some real damage to the person you’re gossiping about or to the person that you’re gossiping to.
SPEAKER 6: I have some exciting news. We’ve won the Ig Nobel Prize for a mobile phone honest and this one is gossip.
SPEAKER 7: Why us?
SPEAKER 6: It must be because a mathematical model on gossip makes you first smile and then think.
SPEAKER 7: Gossip is important in social life. It’s how we learn about others’ good or bad actions, and it’s crucial for human cooperation. The latest gossip is that we received the Ig Nobel Prize.
SPEAKER 6: Is this gossip honest or misleading?
SPEAKER 7: I trust it. I’m going to prove it. Yay.
SPEAKER 6: Sometimes people malign each others. Our motives just like gossip can be honest or dishonest, depending on how much they value the targets and recipients of gossip.
SPEAKER 7: Hey, I heard our research got the Ig Nobel Prize. I don’t know if I trust this. Yeah, you have too much stake in us believing that. We are friends. I care about you. According to our model, I’ll only tell you the truth. OK, I believe it now. Our paper with whom we got the Nobel Prize.
SPEAKER 6: Wow. If so, we should definitely work with her again. But I know that you value her, Paul. And this story really benefits her. Is it really true?
SPEAKER 7: Well, OK. I may have been slightly dishonest.
SPEAKER 6: Overall, our model is the most brilliant paper in the last 50 years.
SPEAKER 7: OK, now that’s dishonest.
IRA FLATOW: Interesting. And one other I want to point out– because I think this strikes me as kind of seasonal– the Safety Engineering Prize for developing a moose crash test dummy. Did we know we needed one until he asked and developed it?
MARC ABRAHAMS: Well, maybe you didn’t. But if you live in a place where there are a lot of mooses wandering around, you would know this. He did this about 20 years ago or so. This was his master’s thesis work in Sweden. And in Sweden, there are a lot of mooses throughout the country.
And there are a fair number of collisions between a moose and a car. And when that happens, that’s not a good thing for the moose or the car. So he developed a crash test dummy, which apparently worked pretty well. And several car manufacturers around the world now have been using this for 20 years, this dummy–
IRA FLATOW: Wow.
MARC ABRAHAMS: –in tests about how do you build cars so that if they are in that kind of collision, maybe people will survive?
MAGNUS JENS: Hi, guys. This is Magnus Jens from the Swedish West Coast, really close to the automotive Mecca of Gothenburg in Sweden. First of all, I would like to thank Marc with team for this fantastic recognition and to also tell you how big of an energy boost it is to accept this Prize. When I first started out, this was a really important topic that we knew very little about.
And what’s also important to understand is that the whole outset of creating this moose crash test dummy is to understand what kind of damages can be done to vehicles by these large animals out on the Swedish roads– or not only Swedish roads, but all the parts in the world where these big animals resides. So thanks once again for this fantastic recognition. And yeah, take care.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. In case you’re just joining us, we’re talking with Marc Abrahams, Editor of the Annals of Improbable Research and ringleader of the awards ceremony who is talking about all the great Ig Nobels that were handed out this year. And you can see a recording of the ceremony on our website at sciencefriday.com/ignobel. I understand that you just got a big science communication Prize in Europe. Tell us about that.
MARC ABRAHAMS: Yeah. This is surprising to me. The Heinz Oberhummer Award is given every year by a group in Austria. And it’s for, they say, outstanding science communication.
So they’ve decided this year they’re giving it to the Ig Nobel Prize. And I’m going to go over to Austria, and several Ig Nobel winners are as well. And we will expect have a fine, old time.
IRA FLATOW: That’s terrific. Do you see the Ig Nobels as a teaching tool?
MARC ABRAHAMS: I hope, always, the Ig Nobel is something that makes people a lot more curious about a lot more things and a lot more eager to do a little bit of thinking on their own about what those things might be and what those things might mean.
IRA FLATOW: One more Prize I want to get to– the Engineering Prize for trying to discover the most efficient way for people to use their fingers when turning a knob.
MARC ABRAHAMS: This is done by a professor in Japan whose whole career has been in designing objects, including things like doorknobs and control knobs. It’s something that, at least, I had never thought about and I think most people haven’t given any thought to about. If you’re the person who’s making the machine or the whatever that has knobs on it, how big are you going to make these knobs, and where are you going to put them?
Because if they’re too big, or too small, or in an awkward place, people are going to have a tough time using them, and they’re going to hate your machine and maybe not use it. So that’s what this research was about– how, in practice, when people, not thinking about it, they just reach their hand and their fingers out– how do those fingers and that knob interact? Here’s the recording of what they said.
SPEAKER 8: I’m very honored to receive this wonderful award. I’m a design researcher and also a product designer. How many fingers do you use to pinch and turn anything of this size? How about this? How about this? And how about this? We have a statistically clarified the answer of these questions.
The diameter that changes from 2 to 3 is 10 to 11 millimeters. From 3 to 4 is 23 to 26 millimeter. And from 4 to 5 is 45 to 50 millimeter. Furthermore, aligning some points straight, the other four fingers draw quadratic curves.
In the field of design, there are many researchers studying such an unconscious human behavior. I hope that more designers will receive this award. Thank you very much.
MARC ABRAHAMS: The winner was very pleased because, I guess, industrial designers, if they do their job well, nobody who uses the thing they design ever thinks about the fact that somebody went to a lot of trouble to make this easy to use.
IRA FLATOW: Marc, tell me, if folks have an idea for someone who deserves a Prize, how do they get in touch?
MARC ABRAHAMS: Just go to our website, improbable.com, and you can get in touch with us very easily there. If you do run across– I’m talking to anybody who’s listening to this– if you run across somebody or some group that you think deserves an Ig Nobel Prize, tell us about it, please. And also, tell us where we can find out the detailed information about it because this is not just a random thing we do. When we choose these people to win the prizes, we really dig into it. We want to make sure they truly deserve it.
IRA FLATOW: Well, Marc, once again, you’ve enlightened us about your prizes, and I thank you for taking time to be with us today.
MARC ABRAHAMS: Thank you, Ira. And happy day after Thanksgiving.
IRA FLATOW: Marc Abrahams, Editor of the Annals of Improbable Research and Master of Ceremonies for the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony.
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.
Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.