Granite Geek: All About the Ig Nobel Prize

Sep 22, 2015

You’ve heard of the Nobel Prize—the award bestowed upon those who have achieved great things in a variety of fields. But you may not have heard of the Ig Nobel Prizes. That’s a parody of the Nobel Prize that’s given out to unusual or trivial achievements in science. David Brooks, a reporter with The Concord Monitor and writer at spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello. 

David, it seems like there’s a contradiction there in trivial achievement.What is meant by these Ig Nobel Prizes?

The way they’ve described themselves officially is accomplishments that first make you laugh and then make you think. They’ve been handed out at Harvard for 25 years. Last week was the 25th First Annual Awards.

Always the first annual?

Always the first annual. I’ve attended about 20 of them, and they’re awesome events. Anybody who is interested in science or interested in a spectacle should definitely attend. They are in stately Sanders Theatre, which is always called “stately” at Harvard, because it is—it’s an absolutely gorgeous facility, and it’s full of raucous geeks who throw paper airplanes the whole time. It features real Nobel Laureates on stage, in medicine, physics, chemistry. They’re up there acting goofy. For many years there was a man sweeping the paper airplanes off the floor and he couldn’t come one year because he was in Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize for Physics.

Well that’s fantastic, and as you write in your column, a few Hampshire scientists have been awarded an Ig Nobel.

Not many, and that’s always been very depressing to me. They give out ten prizes every year, so 250 of them. And to my knowledge, the only New Hampshire residents who have directly won an Ig Nobel Prize were four doctors at Dartmouth and a couple were at Elliot Hospital who were part of the winners in 1997 for the Literature Prize, because they were among 976 co-authors on a single medical study about how to prevent heart attacks, which at the time was the largest number of authors on a refereed study, although since then there have actually been bigger ones. So those four people got it. And the only individual winner was Stanford Wallace, frequently known as “Spamford” Wallace, because he was probably the person who really instigated mass spamming of emails. He lived in and was established in the Seacoast.

And we’re all grateful for him, I suppose.

If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t know about those rich Nigerians.

Tell me about some of the studies that have garnered for scientists the Ig Nobel Prize.

So for example, one of the winners this year was the Physics Prize given to a number of researchers for how long it takes to urinate. They found that all mammals take approximately the same amount of time to empty their bladder, no matter what size the mammal is. For whatever reason, this is a universal—about 21 seconds, plus or minus 13 seconds for all mammals, so that’s exactly the kind of study that’s actually kind of useful. It might say something interesting about physicality but it also makes 12-year-olds laugh, so it’s perfect for the Ig Nobel.

Seems like my dog takes a lot longer than 21 seconds. I guess science doesn’t account for the time it takes to find the right 12 spots in my neighborhood.

Plus your dog is trying to annoy you.

I wanted to ask you about Miss Sweety Poo. What does she do?

A brilliant idea that the Emmy and Tony and Oscar awards should absolutely institute. She is there to keep the speakers from going on too long. When they start talking—and they’ve all been told to not talk too long—she comes trotting out from the wings and goes into her little routine that you’ve just heard, and it’s very effective. It’s very hard to talk down a cute eight-year-old.

All kidding aside, these are still important, even if they do seem silly on the surface.

I think so. It’s one of the best examples around anywhere of making science accessible to the general population. It shows that this stuff can be real and important and have some difficult, complicated aspects, but still be human. It can be just as entertaining as any reality goofball doing stuff—far more entertaining, I think. So you don’t have to spend all your life being serious and frowny-faced if you want to know about science. You can have a lot of laughs and throw paper airplanes too.