What Is This Ig?

by Marc Abrahams

© 1999 Marc Abrahams

This essay was written for HMSBeagle, where it originally appeared on October 1, 1999 , in Issue 63

Some people covet it, others flee from it. Some see it as a hallmark of civilization, others as a scuff mark. Some laugh with it, others laugh at it. Many praise it, a few condemn it, others are just mystified. And many people are madly in love with it.

It is the Ig Nobel Prize.

This is the ninth year we've been awarding Ig Nobel Prizes. Perhaps you have been lucky enough to win one. That's not quite as improbable as it may sound: many of the 976 cowinners of the 1993 Ig Nobel Literature Prize may still be unaware of their good fortune. It's not clear whether these individuals, who coauthored a paper that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine (vol. 329, no. 10), ever exchange information or hellos, or have even heard each others' names spoken. Their paper, by the way, was remarkable for having 100 times as many authors as pages - that is what won them the prize.

Each year, ten Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded. The selection criterion is simple. The prizes are for "achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced." Examine that phrase carefully. It covers a lot of ground. It says nothing as to whether a thing is good or bad, commendable or pernicious.

[PLEASE NOTE: Slightly after this essay was published, we devised a clearer, better, description. Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded for acheivements that make people LAUGH, then THINK.]

For example: after something has been discovered or created, no one - anyone, anywhere, ever - can later become the first to have made that discovery or creation. The "firstness" cannot be repeated. Thus, Don Featherstone (Ig Nobel Art Prize, 1996), the creator of the plastic pink flamingo, clearly qualifies under the "cannot be repeated" clause.

Similarly, Bijan Pakzad (Ig Nobel Chemistry Prize, 1995), the inventor of DNA cologne (which comes in a triple-helix glass bottle, and is marketed with the explanation "Product does not contain deoxyribonucleic acid") also qualifies under the "cannot be repeated" clause.

And Anders Barheim and Hogne Sandvik (Ig Nobel Biology Prize, 1996), who discovered that sour cream stimulates the appetite of leaches, but that beer intoxicates the creatures and garlic often kills them, clearly qualify under the "cannot be repeated" clause.

I raise this matter of good or bad, because the world in general seems to enjoy classifying things as being either one or the other. The Ig Nobel Prizes aside, most prizes, in most places, for most purposes are clearly designed to sanctify the goodness or badness of the recipients. Olympic medals go to very good athletes. Worst-dressed prizes go to badly dressed celebrities. Nobel Prizes go to scientists, writers, and others who excel. Occasional mistakes and omissions happen, sure, but these prizes, and most others, are meant to honor the extremes of humanity - those whose achievements should be seen as very good or very bad.

The Ig Nobel Prize isn't like that. The Ig, as it is known, honors the great muddle in which most of us exist much of the time. Life is confusing. Good and bad get all mixed up. Yin can be hard to distinguish from yang. Ditto for data from artifact and, sometimes, up from down.

Most people go through life without ever being awarded a great, puffy prize to acknowledge that, yes, they have done something. That's why we award Ig Nobel Prizes. If you win one, it signifies to one and all that you have done some thing. What that thing is may be hard to explain - may even be totally inexplicable. Whether your achievement is for the public good or bad may be difficult or even painful to explain. But the fact is, you did it, and have been recognized for doing it. Let others make of that recognition what they will.

Every year, of the ten new Ig Nobel Prizes, about half are awarded for things that most people would say are commendable - if perhaps goofy. The other half go for things that are, in some people's eyes, less commendable.

All such judgments are entirely up to each observer. This makes the Prizes potentially useful in a very nice, and very powerful, way.

Say you have done something that you - and some other people - believe to be very, very good, and maybe even very, very important. But most people don't recognize its importance. Worse, most people don't even recognize its existence. It's different from what they expect, or what they have ever run across. What you have, you believe, is a breakthrough. The classic sequence of events for any breakthrough is:

(1) Most people don't recognize its existence; then

(2) When they do recognize it, their immediate reaction is to laugh or scoff at it; then

(3) Some of those people become curious about this thing that they are laughing at, and then think about it, and so come to appreciate its true worth.

So there you have a nice little benefit of the Ig Nobel Prizes. If you've done something people chuckle at, and you win an Ig, then more people will hear about it. And maybe some of those people will also become curious, and will think about what you've accomplished, and fall in love with it.

Clearly, this has happened with Peter Fong's experiment in which he fed Prozac to clams (Ig Nobel Biology Prize, 1998), Robert Matthews's explication of whether buttered toast always falls on the buttered side (Ig Nobel Physics Prize, 1996), Harold Hillman's report on "The Possible Pain Experienced during Execution by Different Methods" (Ig Nobel Peace Prize, 1997), and Jerald Bain and Kerry Siminoski's examination of "The Relationship among Height, Penile Length, and Foot Size" (Ig Nobel Statistics Prize, 1998).

Scrutiny can, of course, cut two ways. Your great master stroke may strike some as being less than masterly. So it goes, and so has it gone, on occasion, for Jacques Benveniste (Ig Nobel Chemistry Prize, 1991 and 1998) and his discoveries that water molecules remember things and that the memories can be transmitted over telephone lines; for Louis Kervran (Ig Nobel Physics Prize, 1993) and his discovery that the calcium in chickens' eggshells is created by a process of cold fusion; for Shigeru Watanabe, Junko Sakamoto, and Masumi Wakita (Ig Nobel Psychology Prize, 1995) and their achievement in training pigeons to discriminate between the paintings of Picasso and those of Monet; and for Richard Seed (Ig Nobel Economics Prize, 1997) and his plan to clone himself and other human beings. So far as I am aware, winning an Ig has in no way dimmed the prospects for any of these individuals to win a Nobel Prize.

This raises one other matter that should mentioned. The Ig Nobel Board of Governors follows the same dictum that is said to inspire physicians: "First, do no harm."

There are in this world people who are quick to judge, condemn, and punish others. Some of these unhappy people are in positions of authority and might be inclined to, say, punish and ridicule someone in their lab who wins a goofy, meaningless prize. Because we know that such people exist, the Ig Nobel Board of Governors consults with scientists who are under strong consideration for an Ig, to ask whether winning might in any way cause them professional difficulties. In cases where there appears to be a genuine risk, the Prize is not awarded to that person, but goes instead to some other, equally worthy soul. To date, this has happened in about six cases.

Much more common is the case where an individual or a group pleads long and loud to receive an Ig. This has happened more times than we can count. So far, only one Prize has gone to such seekers (the prize to the aforementioned team of Barheim and Sandvik). But who can say what the future has in store?

Marc Abrahams is editor of the Annals of Improbable Research and chairman of the Ig Nobel Board of Governors.