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The Ig Nobel Prizes are an American parody of the Nobel Prizes and are given each year in early October for ten unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research. The stated aim of the prizes is to "first make people laugh, and then make them think". The awards are sometimes veiled criticism (or gentle satire). Organized by the scientific humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), they are presented by a group that includes Nobel Laureates at a ceremony at Harvard University's Sanders Theater, and they are followed by a set of public lectures by the winners at MIT.
The name is a play on the words ignoble ("characterized by baseness, lowness, or meanness") and the Nobel Prize. The pronunciation used during the ceremony is // IG-noh-BEL, not like the word "ignoble".
The first Ig Nobels were awarded in 1991, at that time for discoveries "that cannot, or should not, be reproduced". Ten prizes are awarded each year in many categories, including the Nobel Prize categories of physics, chemistry, physiology/medicine, literature, and peace, but also other categories such as public health, engineering, biology, and interdisciplinary research. With the exception of three prizes in the first year (Administratium, Josiah Carberry, and Paul DeFanti), the Ig Nobel Prizes are for genuine achievements.
The awards are sometimes veiled criticism (or gentle satire), as in the two awards given for homeopathy research, prizes in "science education" to the Kansas and Colorado state boards of education for their stance regarding the teaching of evolution, and the prize awarded to Social Text after the Sokal Affair. Most often, however, they draw attention to scientific articles that have some humorous or unexpected aspect. Examples range from the discovery that the presence of humans tends to sexually arouse ostriches, to the statement that black holes fulfill all the technical requirements to be the location of Hell, to research on the "five-second rule", a tongue-in-cheek belief that food dropped on the floor will not become contaminated if it is picked up within five seconds.
The prizes are presented by genuine Nobel laureates, originally at a ceremony in a lecture hall at MIT but now in Sanders Theater at Harvard University. It contains a number of running jokes, including Miss Sweetie Poo, a little girl who repeatedly cries out, "Please stop: I'm bored," in a high-pitched voice if speakers go on too long. The awards ceremony is traditionally closed with the words: "If you didn't win a prize — and especially if you did — better luck next year!"
Throwing paper airplanes onto the stage was a long-standing tradition at the Ig Nobels, changed at the 2006 ceremony because of "security concerns". In past years, physics professor Roy Glauber has swept the stage clean of the airplanes as the official "Keeper of the Broom". However, Glauber could not attend the 2005 awards – he was traveling to Stockholm to claim a genuine Nobel Prize in Physics.
The "Parade of Ignitaries" brings various supporting groups into the hall. At the 1997 ceremonies, a team of "cryogenic sex researchers" distributed a pamphlet titled "Safe Sex at Four Kelvin". Delegates from the Museum of Bad Art are often on hand to display some pieces from their collection, showing that bad art and bad science go hand in hand.
The ceremony is recorded and broadcast on National Public Radio and is shown live over the Internet. The recording is broadcast every year, on the Friday after U.S. Thanksgiving, on the public radio program Science Friday. In recognition of this, the audience chants the first name of the radio show's host, Ira Flatow.
Two books have been published as of 3 September 2009[ref] with write-ups on some of the winners: The Ig Nobel Prize (2002, US paperback ISBN 0-452-28573-9, UK paperback ISBN 0-7528-4261-7) and The Ig Nobel Prize 2 (2005, US hardcover ISBN 0-525-94912-7, UK hardcover ISBN 0-7528-6461-0), which was later retitled The Man Who Tried to Clone Himself (ISBN 0-452-28772-3).
An Ig Nobel Tour has been an annual part of National Science week in the United Kingdom since 2003. The tour has also traveled to Australia several times, Aarhus University in Denmark in April 2009, Italy and The Netherlands.
In 1995, Robert May, Baron May of Oxford, at the time the Chief Scientific Adviser to the British government, requested that the organizers no longer award Ig Nobel prizes to British scientists, claiming that the awards risked bringing genuine experiments into ridicule. Many British researchers[who?] dismissed Lord May's pronouncements, and the British journal Chemistry & Industry in particular printed an article rebutting his arguments.
A September 2009 article in The National, titled "A noble side to Ig Nobels," says that although the Ig Nobel Awards are veiled criticism of trivial research, history shows that trivial research sometimes leads to important breakthroughs. For instance, in 2006 a study showing that one of the malaria mosquitoes (Anopheles gambiae) is attracted equally to the smell of Limburger cheese and the smell of human feet earned the Ig Nobel Prize in the area of biology. As a direct result of these findings traps baited with this cheese have been utilized in strategic locations in some parts of Africa to combat the epidemic of malaria.
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