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Friday Fun: Ig Nobel Prizes celebrate 20 years of scientific hilarity

by Dave Hannon

October 1, 2010

By Dave Hannon
@Daveatwispubs

If you’re a techie with a sense of humor, then this one’s for you. This week saw the 20th anniversary of the Ig Nobel Prizes, the annual “awards” given out by the Annals of Improbable Research at Harvard University. And clearly, the organizers went above and beyond as they sent the awards into their third decade.

For the uninitiated, the Ig Nobels are a wildly sarcastic version of the Nobel Prizes (and, in fact, have actual Nobel Prize winners as award presenters) where prizes are awarded in various categories for unique scientific breakthroughs or advancement in various fields “that first make people laugh, then make people think.”

For example, the Harvard Crimson reports that British Petroleum won the Chemistry prize this year for disproving the former belief that “oil and water don’t mix.” Can a tongue get any further into a cheek? Perhaps.

This year’s Economics prize was given to executives at Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, AIG and Magnetar for "creating and promoting new ways to invest money – ways that maximize financial gain and minimize financial risk for the world economy, or for a portion thereof." Oowwwch.

The Management award was presented to researchers at the University of Catania in Italy who demonstrated mathematically that organizations would become more efficient if they promoted their employees randomly as opposed to by merit, so the incompetence will be spread around.

But as comical as the prizes themselves are, the awards ceremony is an absolute must-see for geeks with a sense of humor (which makes it a tough ticket to come by here in Boston). I was lucky enough to attend the awards ceremony some years ago while working for a technology magazine and can honestly say it’s an experience I will never forget. And the 20th anniversary ceremony reportedly cranked the zaniness up to 11. Where else will you ever see three Nobel laureates on stage demonstrating how women’s bras can be used as gas masks? Or hear an opera about bacteria struggling to escape someone’s mouth?

The Crimson reports that master of ceremonies Marc Abrahams, the editor of “Annals of Improbable Research” (and someone who should get his own reward for his ongoing efforts), closed the presentation by saying:

“If you didn’t win an Ig Nobel Prize this year—but especially if you did—better luck next year,” he said. 

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