A Wasabi Alarm and the End of the World: the 2011 Ig Nobel Awards


Yawning tortoises? Beetles mating with beer bottles?  Structured procrastination (doing something important to avoid doing something even more important)?  These were just some of the quirky inquiries that netted their researcher(s) the now-coveted Ig Nobel Award, bestowed every year for achievements that “first make people laugh and then make them think.”

The 21st First Annual Ig Nobel Award Ceremony was held Thursday September 29 at Harvard University’s venerable Sanders Theater, a venue more accustomed to hosting piano concertos than paper airplanes.  Emceed by Marc Abrahams, publisher/editor of The Annals of Improbable Research which sponsors the event, the participants included six genuine Nobel Laureates who handed out the awards and generally cavorted on stage during one of the evening’s highlights: the mini-opera.

Despite the seeming silliness of some of the studies, further reflection reveals that most of them serve a more serious purpose.   In the case of the star-crossed male beetles, who apparently find a certain brown beer bottle to resemble a massive (and thus presumably voluptuous) female beetle, the research showed that “[i]mproperly disposed of beer bottles not only present a physical and ‘visual’ hazard in the environment, but also could potentially cause great interference with the mating system of a beetle species.”  The authors also noted that their investigation demonstrated that when mating mistakes are made, it’s usually males who make them. One doesn’t need to be a beer bottle to vouch for that.

While most of the prizes are based on papers published in peer-reviewed journals, some awards honor ingenious patents and problem-solving or simply acknowledge large-scale human folly.  As a “minor domo” in the show (I like to think of myself as a “Nobel Laureate wrangler”), I got to experience the wasabi alarm firsthand and I can attest to its efficacy (believe me, one would not sleep through it).  The collection of diviners who forecast many different end-of-the-world dates were noted for embodying the pitfalls of mathematical carelessness.  And Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, was recognized for resolving the issue of double-parked luxury cars by running them over with a tank.

The following is a list of this year’s Ig-worthy achievements.  For the complete list of winners and references, as well as a link to the YouTube full video of the show, please visit www.improbable.com.

PHYSIOLOGY PRIZE For a study concluding that there is no evidence of contagious yawning in the red-footed tortoise.

CHEMISTRY PRIZE: For the invention of the wasabi alarm (airborne wasabi [pungent horseradish] utilized for waking people in the case of fire or other emergency).

MEDICINE PRIZE: For a study demonstrating that people make better decisions about some kinds of things — but worse decisions about other kinds of things — when they have a strong urge to urinate.

PSYCHOLOGY PRIZE: For a study whose purpose was to try to understand why, in everyday life, people sigh.

LITERATURE PRIZE: For the Theory of Structured Procrastination: To be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that’s even more important.

BIOLOGY PRIZE: For a study that investigated why a certain kind of beetle mates with a certain kind of Australian beer bottle.

PHYSICS PRIZE: For a paper that studied why discus throwers become dizzy, and why hammer throwers don’t.

MATHEMATICS PRIZE: To six pundits, all of whom predicted that the world would end on a number of different dates, for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.

PEACE PRIZE: To the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with an armored tank.


Related Stories:

2010 Ig Nobel Awards: Proof that Real Science Can Be Really Fun

Vilnius Mayor Crushes Car in Bike Lane: Cyclists’ Revenge (Video)

Rapture Readiness: The High Cost of The End


Photo credit: John Bradley


K s Goh
KS Goh6 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Hilary S.
Hilary S6 years ago

laughter repairs the world.

Jennifer E.
Jennifer E6 years ago

What a hoot! Love these awards! Also the Darwin(?) awards for those opting themselves out of the gene pool as a result of their idiocy.

David Anderson
David Anderson6 years ago

It is a badly needed reprieve to be able to see the lighter side of life!

Lilithe Magdalene

"Structured procrastination" - I TOTALLY do that! It's how I still manage to get stuff done even though I am on disability and have a hard time focusing.

William Eagle
Bill Eagle6 years ago

Very funny, lots of fun.

Karen and Edwar O.
Karen and Ed O6 years ago

I loved listening to the Ignobel Awards on Science Friday on NPR. The winners were always such great sports and some of them very funny. College is very stress producing and a little humor goes a long way.
And to those that call this a waste of time ----- lighten up, people!

melanie blow
melanie blow6 years ago

What a lot of people don't realize is that science is like art- its creation and existance is its own reward, and every little bit has the potential to change the world, ever-so-slightly, even if you look at a finish product and wonder what the HELL it means or says. I actually understand the red-footed tortoise thing- no one really understands contagious yawning, but scientists are finding that in in other social animals, like chimpanzees. So seeing its absence in tortoises means either tortoises are not social enough for contagious yawning to have any function, or they don't have the necessary brain proportions to support it. And as someone who has owned many tortoises, yes, they yawn more than you'd imagine.

Lynn C.
Lynn C6 years ago

Loved this!

Janet S.
Past Member 6 years ago

Proof that universities are using money gained from some rather destructive ways that harm the planet, to spend their time frivolously, thus making a mockery of a lot of lives lost due to the resultant climate change.