The IgNoblest of Them All

Status Symbols

The first week in October marks the announcements of the pre-eminent Nobel Prizes, which recognize advancements across fields of science and culture. Established in 1895 by Alfred Nobel, explosives expert and the inventor of dynamite, the awards were formed due to Nobel's lack of an heir as well as his desire to leave a positive legacy. (Apparently a premature obituary in a French newspaper called him a "merchant of death"). 

Accompanied by great prestige, each Nobel Prize winner receives a diploma, a cash prize (this year’s sum is 10 million Swedish kronor), and a medal (plated with 24-karat gold). These status symbols have inspired the Ig Nobel Prizes, an American parody that celebrates more unusual discoveries, honoring imaginative and often humorous achievements in science. Founded in 1991, the awards are handed out by “real” Nobel laureates in a gala ceremony at Harvard University.

Among this year’s offbeat winners is a fire alarm that uses the potent smell of wasabi to wake deaf people, developed by researchers at the Shiga University of Medical Science in Japan. Another award was given to a Dutch-Belgian-Australian-American research team for their work about the effects of an insistently full bladder on decision-making and self-control. (They found that driving with a full bladder is as distracting as driving while sleep-deprived or mildly drunk.)

Between 10% and 20% of the entries are self-nominated, says Marc Abrahams, editor of the publication that sponsors the annual Ig Nobels, Annals of Improbable Research. He notes that scientists commonly nominate themselves, especially if they are younger. Although these types of nominations rarely succeed, they keep coming because "some winners have received tremendous amounts of publicity -- internationally as well as locally.  And attention seems to be a rare commodity."