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Re-Animating Dead Spiders, Smart Toilets, Licking Rocks and Counting Nostril Hairs: The 2023 IG Nobel Prizes

This year’s Ig Nobel winners feature the hilariously unserious slew of science we’ve come to expect, but also serve to remind us that science can, and should be, fun and funny.

While the 2023 Nobel Prize announcements have come and gone, the chatter around the winners is likely to last far longer. And for good reason; from quantum dots to the nucleoside base modifications that made COVID-19 mRNA vaccines possible on the science side, and the fight for women’s rights in Iran on the peace side, this year’s winners represent a sample of some of the best, brightest and most inspiring people in the world.

But that’s not what this article is about. I’m here to tell you about the Nobel Prize’s unofficial and much funnier little brother, the Ig Nobel Prize.

While awarded by the aptly named scientific comedy magazine the Annals of Improbable Research, the winners of Ig Nobel Prizes are not solely funny. The awards are given for research that “make people laugh, then think”. What made the judges laugh and think in 2023? Well, there was a treatise on why geologists like to lick rocks that took the combined Chemistry and Geology prizes. Work on smart toilets to monitor and measure human waste took the Public Health Prize, and an investigation on whether there’s an equal number of hairs in each human nostril snagged the Medicine Prize. (The answer is generally yes, around 110-130 each).

Other awards included the Education Prize to researchers who systematically studied the boredom of teachers and students; the Psychology Prize to a team who did experiments to see how many people would stop and look up when they saw strangers doing it; and the Physics Prize for an investigation into the contribution of anchovies’ sex lives on ocean-water mixing.

Although the laugh part of the prize’s mandate is highlighted and celebrated, we do a disservice to the Ig Nobels by forgetting about the think part of their criteria. Even aspects that seem a bit unhinged, like using a re-animated dead spider as a mechanical gripping tool (the winner of the 2023 Ig Nobel in Mechanical Engineering), add to the mass of scientific knowledge and further our understanding of the world we live in. Counting nostril hairs can help provide baselines for measuring patients against when they’re dealing with diseases that cause hair loss. Electrifying chopsticks and drinking straws and measuring their effects on taste (the work that won the 2023 Nutrition Ig Nobel) aids us in understanding the mechanisms behind our gustatory system. Things don’t have to be serious to matter.

Case in point, there is one scientist who has been lucky enough to be awarded both an Ig Nobel Prize and a Nobel Prize! Sir Andre Geim, a Russian-born Dutch-British physicist won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Konstantin Novoselov for their work on graphene. A decade earlier he won the 2000 Ig Nobel Prize in Physics for using magnets to levitate a live frog.

As stated on the official website, “The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people’s interest in science, medicine, and technology.” When we exclusively hold science up as this sacred, serious, academic thing, and banish it to universities and libraries, we miss out on opportunities to build people’s interest in this weird, wonderful field we love.

Science explains important questions like how the universe came to exist; why carbon can be both hard diamonds and soft graphene; and gives us lifesaving medical treatments. But it also explains why we poop so much on our periods; why plastic containers always come out of the dishwasher wet; and why tiny dogs raise their legs so high when they pee.

In short, science is not always serious, but it is always interesting. The Ig Nobels allow us to celebrate some of the work that isn't going to change the world but is still deeply fascinating. They’re an annual opportunity to remember that science is weird and that it's ok to admit, and even celebrate, that.


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