The Ig Nobel Prize celebrates discoveries and inventions that are unusual and imaginative. Think of it as the younger, more fun sibling of the revered Nobel Prize. Ig Nobel Prize winners are often recognized for research that might not make it into a more traditional science journal—one that doesn’t publish studies about levitating frogs or constipated scorpions. You’re in for a fun one.
Transcript of this Episode
Sam Jones: Every October, leading scientists across the globe brace themselves, waiting—hoping—for a call. A call telling them that they’ve won a Nobel Prize, arguably the most coveted award for any scientist to receive.
But this episode is not about the Nobel Prize, it’s about its younger, much more fun sibling: the Ig Nobel Prize. The Ig Nobel Prize celebrates discoveries and inventions that are unusual and imaginative—things that make people laugh and then think.
Deboki Chakravarti: Ig Nobel Prize winners often win for research they were doing as a fun side project, or something they unexpectedly stumbled upon that might not make it into a more traditional science journal. Like, for example, a study showing that when people meet for the first time and feel attracted to each other, their heart rates synchronize, or how tail loss in scorpions leads to constipation and also decreased locomotion.
If those studies and the title of this episode didn’t make it clear: you’re in for a fun one.
Deboki: Welcome to Tiny Matters. I’m Deboki Chakravarti and I’m joined by my co-host Sam Jones. In today’s episode, Sam and I will be sharing a few of our favorite Ig Nobel Prize wins with you, which were not easy to pick, since 10 awards have been chosen every year since 1991.
But we’ll start at the beginning, with the creation of the Ig Nobel.
Sam: To learn about the Prize’s humble beginnings, we called up Marc Abrahams, editor of The Annals of Improbable Research, a bimonthly magazine dedicated to the more humorous side of academic work. Marc was one of the founders of the Ig Nobel Prize, and the idea for the ceremony came to him in 1990 as a way of showcasing some of the unique work that was coming across his desk each day.
Marc, who’s based in Boston, mentioned his Ig Nobel ceremony idea to someone he bumped into at MIT. They asked Marc, "Do you have a place to hold the ceremony?” and when Marc said no, they said, “why not here?”
Deboki: So, that first year, Marc put a notice about the ceremony online. This is 1991, so that's pretty cutting edge. I am very impressed. The ceremony was free, but people had to go pick up tickets ahead of time at MIT. Marc had no idea if anyone would show up. But then… all of the tickets were gone within a day.
Marc Abrahams: We had the ceremony, which was a lot of fun, and we were half making it up as we went along. And I'm pretty sure that everybody there had about the same thought in mind that I did that night, which was, you look around the room, you see all these people, and you think at any moment some grownup person is gonna walk into this room and tell us to stop this and go home. But nobody did. So we had the ceremony, it got a lot of press attention around the world in the next few days and weeks. And so the next year it became fairly easy to do it on a much bigger scale. We moved it to the biggest auditorium at MIT and that just kept happening over the years. The fifth year we moved it down the street a couple miles to Harvard and it kept growing and growing in its odd way.
Deboki: After that first year, Marc began receiving a stream of letters and emails from people suggesting future winners.
Marc Abrahams: And that turned into a flood, which continues to this day. Every day I get a little flood of stuff from quite literally around the world, most of it from people I've never met, of things that at least they think will make other people laugh and then think. And one year I became curious about the numbers of this. You know, how big is this flow that's pulsing in here every day? So I kept loose track for a whole year of how many things are coming in. And that year we got something like 9,000 nominations for IG Nobel prizes.
Sam: And the Ig Nobel event itself is really something else. Marc alluded to it earlier by saying that at the first ceremony they were thinking at any moment a ‘grownup’ would come and break things up and send people home. It is full of enthusiastic chatter and banter and even event-condoned paper airplanes.
Marc Abrahams: It happens at Harvard University in a place called Sanders Theater. It's just a beautiful, extremely dignified place. And if you're gonna be doing something funny, you wanna do it in a really dignified place. The building adds a lot. And there's a tradition that started in the second year back when we were doing this at MIT. A lot of people brought little stacks or big stacks of paper to the ceremony with them, which they then make into paper airplanes. And they spend the whole night throwing paper airplanes at the stage and the people on stage spend the night throwing paper airplanes back into the audience. You're allowed to do it at the IG Nobel ceremony.
Sam: And to keep the ceremony running on time, a kid, usually around 8 years old, is brought in with the permission of their parents who are often fans of the Ig Nobel. That kid’s job is to make sure award acceptance speeches don’t run over time.
Marc Abrahams: And so this little girl is part of the ceremony. She sits on stage the whole time, and we explain to the winners, this is what's gonna happen if your speech gets too long. Whenever this little girl feels that somebody has talked long enough, she lets them know. Long enough is about one minute. And so the winner gets up there, starts talking, and after a minute or so goes by, if the winner's still talking, the little girl on the other side of the stage stands up and walks all the way across the stage up to that person who's at the microphone talking, looks up at that person and says, “Please stop. I'm bored. Please stop. I'm bored….” And she doesn't stop until they do. And it really works. The first year we did that, the whole ceremony was an hour shorter than it was the year before.
Deboki: That is such a good idea. I think 8 year olds should attend every conference, every talk, every acceptance speech just to keep people in check, to keep them humble and on-time.
Sam: I know. It’s so good. Marc described this kid as typically being “an 8 year old girl with ice water in her veins” and I thought that was so funny.
Deboki: It’s true, eight year olds are ruthless.
Sam: They really are.
Deboki: So hopefully now that you have an idea of what this ceremony is like, let’s talk a bit about what’s behind the Ig Nobel. That little catch phrase, “research that makes people laugh and then think,” came to Marc in the early days of the awards when he was talking with a reporter about one of the winners. The conversation didn’t start off all that well, with the reporter laughing and making disparaging remarks about one of the projects that had won. It was the invention of a pair of odor-filtering underwear, which on the surface may sound kind of silly, but there was much more to it.
Sam: So Marc shared the entire backstory with the reporter—how the underwear were invented by a married couple where the wife suffered from a chronic inflammatory bowel disease called Crohn’s disease, which you’ve likely heard of before because it’s not that uncommon. She unfortunately was experiencing some smelly side effects that people with Crohn’s sometimes have to deal with. And these underwear, that had a version of a carbon filter built in, were helping manage that.
Marc Abrahams: And I think that's a really sweet and wonderful story. The moment I mentioned that to him, I could hear over the telephone, I could hear that he suddenly understood, he said, oh, my best friend has Crohn's disease. That's a terrible disease. And at that moment I said this phrase, “yeah this prize is really about things that first make people laugh, and then it makes them think.” And he said, “yeah, yeah, yeah.” So I wrote down that phrase, ‘makes people laugh then think.’ And the next bunch of conversations I had with strangers, especially with reporters, I would say that phrase to them, and they all understood right away. It's things that are so utterly surprising that the moment you hear about them, you laugh—it's just your automatic reaction. It's so completely unexpected that your immediate reaction is to laugh. And it's also surprising in a way that, wow, that really grabs your attention and you're gonna keep thinking about it.
Deboki: So let’s get into some of those prizes that will make you laugh and then think, starting with someone who, 10 years after winning an Ig Nobel Prize, won an actual Nobel Prize.
Sam: It’s quite the combo.
Deboki: I know, it’s like the EGOT for scientists.
The scientist is Andre Geim who, in 2010, won the Nobel Prize in Physics alongside colleague Konstantin Novoselov for the discovery of graphene, which is an arrangement of carbon atoms that’s only one atom thick but quite strong and a good conductor of heat and electricity, making it a huge deal within the technology world. We’ve added a link to a video about this in the episode description if you really want to do a deep dive. But enough about graphene! We’re here for the Ig Nobel, and Andre Geim knocked that one out of the park in 2000 with… a levitating frog.
Sam: There were no Harry Potter spells cast, to my knowledge, just some good ‘ol physics on display. The levitating frog was an example of a phenomenon called diamagnetism, where a magnet creates a magnetic force in the material or object it’s near, but that force is in the opposite direction, and if it’s strong enough it might, say, keep an object, like a frog, lifted in the air.
Deboki: No wand necessary.
Sam: Another Ig Nobel Prize I love was given out in 2018 in Chemistry but was for work that was actually done in 1990, where researchers measured how good human saliva is as a cleaning agent for dirty surfaces, specifically ones more fragile, coated in, say, gold leaf or delicate paint. They actually came upon the idea seeing that conservators helping preserve fragile pottery and paintings would opt to use their own spit. Apparently these conservators were onto something, because spit turned out to be better than other cleaners they tested.
Deboki: That is very useful. And a good way to save money, right?
An Ig Nobel I thought was very fun, and also from 2018, was the Biology Ig Nobel given to a research group who showed that wine experts can identify, by smell, the presence of a single fly in a glass of wine. I didn’t know this, but apparently female fruit flies emit a pheromone that seems to have quite the unpleasant scent that can be detected by humans. Researchers were able to identify this pheromone, and it was powerful enough that the panel of experts could say, “yep, there’s a female fly in that glass of wine.”
Sam: I would love to blame flies, but I think sometimes the wine I buy is so cheap that it’s just going to smell ‘off’ and has nothing to do with fly pheromones.
All right, so last one but certainly not the least. In 2021, there was a very fun Ig Nobel in Chemistry given out to a team of researchers who analyzed the air inside movie theaters, to test whether the odors produced by an audience could tell you what they were watching—maybe a violent scene or romantic scene or something funny.
To do this, the researchers first made sure that only fresh air was coming into the movie theater. You don’t want odorant molecules from some random truck outside or person at the concession stand ruining the experiment. Then they connected machines called mass spectrometers to the exhaust of the ventilation system in the cinema. Mass spectrometry or mass spec is a really common tool used in analytical chemistry that measures the mass-to-charge ratio of molecules in a sample, helping scientists zero in on what those molecules could be.
Deboki: One of the researchers behind this work is Achim Edtbauet.
He doesn’t study movie theater smells on the regular—he actually spends his days working as an atmospheric chemist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany. This was just a little side project he and his collaborators stumbled upon. But Achim told us he had a lot of fun with it and was kind of surprised by what they found.
Achim Edtbauer: What was in a way interesting, or I found really striking, that—we are all humans, we are quite individual, and depending on what you've eaten and done so far, of course your metabolism will be different and you will emit different things. But when you were looking at the same movie, which was shown several times with audiences, often at the same scenes when there was intense action or something else going on, there was always spikes happening. Sometimes you could even figure out by just looking at the time traces of your masses ‘oh it must be that movie’. So it's really interesting that it's so, in that sense, predictable what a crowd does in emitting chemicals.
Deboki: One compound that they saw a lot was isoprene, particularly in movies that were rated for older audiences. In Germany the rating system is different than here in the US, but this would be equivalent to a PG, PG-13 or R movie compared to a G-rated flick.
Achim Edtbauer: Isoprene is a molecule… it's related to cholesterol synthesis and muscle movement and so we were thinking, or we are speculating, that depending on the intensity or frightening action of a movie, of course you involuntarily or without knowing you will move your muscles or get excited or something like that. And then maybe there is more isoprene release and that might have made this molecule perfect for classifying a movie according to the age. I mean, we are not saying that we can do it perfectly. It was more like a proof of principle. But isoprene definitely was an interesting molecule.
Deboki: Another fun odorant they picked up was ethanol, but unlike isoprene it wasn’t being produced by people, it was being consumed.
Achim Edtbaur: There was a movie—the main actor was going into a bar and then was drinking a beer. And it's really funny that at this moment, always the ethanol signal goes a bit crazy in the cinemas. And probably what this means is all the people that have beers as well, when they see the main actor drinking a beer, they maybe were drinking their beer as well, even without noticing. And this was always really funny. This was always detectable. In this scene, ethanol went up.
Deboki: I find this so funny. People were just drinking after seeing this guy drink on screen and then breathing out some of the alcohol—ethanol—in their beer. Because we humans are so easily influenced. If that doesn’t show the effectiveness of subliminal messaging I’m not sure what does.
Sam: For sure, I mean how many times have I seen someone bite into a burger on screen or—great example—the Great British Baking show. I see those baked goods and all of a sudden I’m making pumpkin bread while I’m watching. It’s ridiculous.
Deboki: Now I know how to get your to make me pumpkin bread.
Sam: There you go. This was so fun. I love the Ig Nobel. I’m really hoping to cover it in person at some point in my career because I want to experience that ceremony for myself.
Deboki: Oh absolutely. I think we should nominate this for Tiny Matters field trip, 2023.
Sam: Let's tiny show and tell.
Deboki: Yeah, let's do it.
Sam: Deboki, do you want to go first this time?
Sam: Do you want me to go first this time?
Deboki: I will go first.
Deboki: I come bearing good news, which is that people agreed on something. There was an agreement and I feel like right now, anything that feels unifying in a way, I'm like, "That sounds great." And even more fundamentally, this is important because it's about time, how we measure time. So have you ever heard of a leap second? I hadn't, but have you?
Sam: No, only… when it comes to ‘leap,’ leap year. Anything beyond that, I do not know.
Deboki: Yeah, exactly. I didn't have this concept that... There's the leap day, but there's a leap second, and it was introduced in 1972 to help align two different ways that we have to measure time. One is the rotation of the earth, so that is astronomical time. But the other is using the vibration of caesium atoms. And that is International Atomic Time. Using that as a way to measure time began in 1967. And the thing about International Atomic Time is that it's a little bit faster than earth rotation time. So this is why the leap second had to get introduced. So basically, what would happen is whenever atomic time would get ahead of earth's rotation by a second or the time that astronomical time by a second, it would stop to let that astronomical time catch up to it.
So there were 10 leap seconds introduced at first, and over time, I think 27 more have been added. The thing that is difficult about these leap seconds is that it's actually hard to figure out where they're going to be needed. So it's hard to plan for them. And that makes it really difficult for a lot of computing systems, especially as they've gotten more connected because a lot of our computing needs are so precise. People will need computers that are precise to the billionth of a second. So adding in a leap second can really mess things up. It raises the possibility that things are going to crash. And that's why inverse size, a group of people decided to get together to make the very important decision to get rid of the leap second, except the catch is it's not going to happen right away.
The plan is for it to happen in 2035 because Russia voted against the leap second because their global navigation satellite system actually uses the leap second. So it's kind of a problem there, which is why the leap second will not be abandoned right away. But the idea is that with this all changing, all of these organizations that are dedicated to measuring things that are dedicated to standardizing time, they're going to have to figure out, "How are we going to reconcile astronomic time with atomic time in the meantime?" And then the leap second will be gone unless they figure out a way to use it without crashing computers, I guess.
Sam: Yeah, that is so interesting. What is the name of the organization that is specifically for measurements?
Deboki: In the US, it's NIST. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is the US version. So they were involved in this, but then there are also representatives from other countries as well.
Sam: Yeah. And it's funny because you're like, "Wait, your job is just to make sure that measurements are as accurate as possible?" That seems silly, but it's actually so fundamental to everything. Like you mentioned, servers are going to be crashing because of these leap seconds.
Deboki: The thing that my brain goes to is Y2K and that sense of like, "Oh, time's going to completely mess up the way that our information is encoded and everything's going to come crashing." And luckily, people anticipated and were able to figure out a way to prevent everything from crashing. But yeah, I wonder if that's the similar aspect of what could happen with leap seconds.
Sam: So interesting. So, for me, it's a big day because I have a physics tiny show and tell for you, but it's a very, very silly physics one.
Deboki: Wow, neither of us did biology.
Sam: It's shocking, but I'm very proud of us.
Deboki: Yeah, I'm excited.
Sam: This one is about using physics to create a better urinal. This one is not immediately relevant to us, but it is relevant to about half the population, so I felt like it was worthy of checking out and sharing with our listeners.
Deboki: For sure.
Sam: So at the end of November, the American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamics held a meeting in Indianapolis, and a bunch of research was presented at the meeting, including research on a better urinal. So, scientists at the University of Waterloo, Canada have designed a urinal that has the same geometry as a nautilus shell so that it has this curving inner surface that allows for a smooth flow of liquid—i.e. urine—keeping droplets from flying out. To test this, they thankfully did not use urine. They used a dyed liquid, and they found that in a conventional urinal, there's a significant amount of splash that goes on the floor, but also on a person's feet and maybe legs.
I didn't know this. And with this new smooth nautilus shell shape, they were able to essentially redirect the liquid and they did not see any spillage, I guess, not a drop.
Sam: This is a very silly physics one, but I found it very creative. And also, I had no idea that the area around urinals was so disgusting. Maybe I should have guessed that? But being a bit of a germaphobe, I'm very glad these researchers are trying to keep urine off of floors and feet and legs, and I just thought it was just really fun. You know, every time I write off physics, some physicist does something like this, and I think, "I guess we need it."
Deboki: Yep, yep, they found their uses again.
Sam: And that's a quick and easy one, but I just thought it was really fun.
Deboki: No, I love that. I feel toilet technology is one of those things where you're like, "Right, there's someone who has to work on this. There's someone who has to make a better toilet." And I'm very glad that there are people who do that.
Sam: Yeah. If mean if you’ve ever sat on a heated toilet seat in winter, it's the best.
Deboki: Yeah. Shout out to that person,
Sam: Whoever did that, I'm a fan.
Thanks for tuning in to this week’s episode of Tiny Matters, a production of the American Chemical Society, a non-profit scientific organization based in Washington, DC.
Deboki: This week’s script was written by Sam who is also our exec producer and was edited by me and by Matt Radcliff who’s the Executive Producer of ACS Productions. It was fact-checked by Michelle Boucher. The Tiny Matters theme and episode sound design are by Michael Simonelli and the Charts & Leisure team. Our artwork was created by Derek Bressler.
Sam: Thanks so much to Marc Abrahams and Achim Edtbauer for joining us.
Deboki: If you have thoughts, questions, ideas about future Tiny Matters episodes, send us an email at email@example.com.
You can find me on Twitter at okidoki_boki and Instagram at okidokiboki
Sam: And you can find me on Twitter, Instagram, Mastodon, Hive, all of the social media sites I don’t want to be on but have to, at samjscience. See you next time.