What news from AWS re:Invent last week will have the most impact on you?
Amazon Q, an AI chatbot for explaining how AWS works.
Super-fast S3 Express storage.
New Graviton 4 processor instances.
Emily Freeman leaving AWS.
I don't use AWS, so none of this will affect me.
Science / Tech Life

How 2023’s ‘Ig Nobel’ Prize Ceremony Celebrates Curiosity

Like jesters in the court of science itself, the Ig Nobel prize celebrates that willingness to be curious — no matter how obscure or offbeat the topic may be.
Oct 1st, 2023 9:00am by
Featued image for: How 2023’s ‘Ig Nobel’ Prize Ceremony Celebrates Curiosity

It’s a cherished tradition that’s continued for the last 33 years. Somewhere just outside the halls of academia lurks a self-appointed review board that gives extra points for the absurd — and each year it awards a new set of “Ig Nobel” prizes to recognize real scientific research that “makes people laugh, then think.”

“Winners travel from around the world to receive their prize from a group of genuine, genuinely bemused Nobel Laureates,” explains the description of this year’s wacky prize ceremony. The official prize certificate is also signed by actual Nobel laureates, and in addition, the winners receive an authentic $10 trillion bill.

Although unfortunately, the bill is in a discontinued currency from Zimbabwe.

But mostly they’ll receive a little extra recognition — and a chance to participate in the fun annual prize ceremony…

As a new generation of researchers takes their turn in the spotlight, it’s interesting to contemplate what’s actually being accomplished here. Besides a few laughs, there’s a larger tradition that dates back nearly half a lifetime — of appreciating the act of curiosity. Like jesters in the court of science itself, the team behind the event celebrates that willingness to be curious — no matter how obscure or offbeat the topic may be.

But maybe it also celebrates the act of sharing the results of our strangest inquiries…

How It Started

The annual event is produced by a one-of-kind scientific publication called The Annals of Irreproducible Research, a satirical scientific journal covering strange (and occasionally fictional) academic research. And their story reaches back in time, to an era that predates even the web itself. Looking back to the 1970s, co-founder Marc Abrahams’ LinkedIn profile recounts a five-year stint as a programmer (and then special systems development manager) at futurist Ray Kurzweil’s first company. Kurzweil Computer Products produced an optical character recognition device, and was later sold to Xerox…

Sometime back in 1990, Abrahams had fatefully stumbled across a satirical science magazine, which he remembered in a 2004 essay in the Guardian as “a magnificent odd duck with a bedraggled history. It was started in 1955 by two very funny Israeli scientists — Alex Kohn, who studied viruses, and Harry Lipkin, who did physics research.” Their original magazine had changed hands several times over the years, and was now in need of a new editor, and Abrahams gladly took the reins at the Journal of Irreproducible Results. So one year later — and 13 years after receiving his applied mathematics degree from Harvard in 1978 — Abrahams launched the first Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony in 1991 as a kind of live adjunct to the magazine itself.

When the magazine’s publisher decided to part ways, the founders and editorial staff simply regrouped into the Annals of Irreproducible Research. And the annual Ig Nobel ceremonies continued. More than three decades later, the Ig Nobel Awards ceremony is still organized by the magazine to this day (albeit co-sponsored by two Harvard-Radcliffe groups — the Society of Physics Students and the Science Fiction Association).

“The 1995 ceremony was one of the very first events ever webcast,” the website notes.

But its website carefully stresses to one and all that they’re not mocking science. “Good achievements can also be odd, funny, and even absurd; So can bad achievements. A lot of good science gets attacked because of its absurdity. A lot of bad science gets revered despite its absurdity…”

School of Rocks

For example, this year the first award of the evening went to Jan Zalasiewicz, for an article penned in the Paleontological Association Newsletter on the subject of why many scientists like to lick rocks. Before swerving into some anecdotes about the edibility of fossils, the essay had delved into recently re-discovered letters by an 18th-century geologist named Giovanni Arduino, who apparently pioneered “taste… as an analytic tool.” (Or, to put it another way, the art of rock licking.)

“With no machines, no textbooks, no microscopes — no chemistry, indeed — they did geology at least in part by taste,” Zalasiewicz said in his acceptance speech. “And it worked for them.” And he sincerely hailed Arduino as a visionary who “became a geologist, even before such a thing really existed… Giovanni Arduino reminds us how to do science from scratch.”

And scientists continue licking rocks even today, Zalasiewicz wrote in the winning essay. “Wetting the surface allows fossil and mineral textures to stand out sharply, rather than being lost in the blur of intersecting micro-reflections and micro-refractions that come out of a dry surface.” Although instead of a geologist, Zalasiewicz’s prize was ultimately presented by an 80-year-old chemistry Nobel laureate, Richard J. Roberts, who in 1993 shared a prize for his early work on gene splicing. Wearing a hat of dangling eyeball-shaped pink circles, the Nobel laureate confided seriously to the recipient “I have to admit I’m a chemist by training, but I never learned to lick rocks.”

So after awarding the prize, host Marc Abrahams asked Zalasiewicz to demonstrate how it’s done — on a 400-million-year-old trilobite fossil discovered in Wales. The geologist obliged, saying it revealed grains of silt and the patterns in their arrangement. “Of course if it’s a rainy day, you don’t need to do that, you know. So quite often in the field in Wales, there are days when you don’t have to lick rocks. But on dry days, that’s the standard repertoire.”

Coming Soon

While the event has traditionally been held in Harvard’s Sanders Theatre, since the pandemic started in 2020 it’s been a virtual event, with this year’s webcast on September 14th. A specially edited version of that event gets a radio broadcast the day after Thanksgiving on the syndicated public radio show, Science Friday. This year a second live and in-person “face-to-face” event will also be held on November 11, where the new winners (and other researchers) “ask each other questions about their work,” according to its official web page. (“There will also be music and paper airplanes and other good stuff.”)

And some of this year’s winners will be invited to participate in more public events in the year to come, in the U.K., Japan, and Denmark.

But it all celebrates truly amazing research. During this year’s webcast, two researchers from Tokyo’s Meiji University were recognized for experimenting with electrified chopsticks and drinking straws to see how tastes were affected. “It is being commercialized,” researcher Homei Miyashita announced during the ceremony, “and will be launched this year perhaps.” Their ultimate vision involves enhancing the flavor of healthier low-salt foods by using electrical currents to create the perception of more saltiness. The name of their upcoming product?

Electric salt.

Homei Miyashita (with Hiromi Nakamura) accepting 2023 Ig Nobel nutrition prize for electric chopsticks

“And also I’m expanding my research to include taste displays,” Miyashita adds, “that will produce taste even remotely…

“I call these taste media.”

Running on the Moon

There’s a lot of goodwill from the real community of academic scholars. At several points during the webcast, there’s a montage of paper airplanes being thrown by Nobel laureates around the world. And this year’s webcast continued a long-standing tradition of including short “24/7” lectures, where real-world researchers attempt a complete technical description of a complex topic in just 24 seconds — followed by a simpler 7-second summary. (Like “your organs make and absorb water constantly.”)

Halfway through the show were 24/7 lectures on two related topics — how geckos can walk on water, and then what physics would enable running on a pond of water on the moon. And then somehow those two topics fused into an operatic aria — accompanied by surreal videos approximating the two experiments.

What’s even stranger is how lovely and mesmerizing the whole performance was.

Barbara Allen Hill (soprano) sings aria about running on a pond on the moon for 2023 Ig Nobel prize ceremony

In fact, there were moments when the ceremony seemed to violate all the rules. One study had actually counted how many people need to be looking up at a building on a city street before passing strangers will also stop and look up. Presenting their award, Nobel prizewinner Frances Arnold hailed it as “the most important contribution since Monkey See, Monkey Do — which left so much unexplained…”

Vowing to replicate the experiment, Arnold asked how cell phones might affect her research assistants (who might not be able to tear their eyes away from the screen). But “Since the study was done in 1968, I didn’t worry about that,” replied the Ig Nobel prize recipient. It turns out he was accepting the award on behalf of famed social psychology researcher Stanley Milgram (1953-1984). “I was one of his first advisees in a seminar with 17 students in 1968 when we did this study.”

And in the end, their study perhaps best illustrates the enduring utility of curiosity — and how a moment of strange and offbeat research can travel far, far into the future.

“This publication has been cited over 700 times, with a dozen times in just the last few months.”

Group Created with Sketch.
THE NEW STACK UPDATE A newsletter digest of the week’s most important stories & analyses.