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Friday, September 22, 2023

The Quirky Brilliance of the 33rd Ig Nobel Awards

WorldAmericaThe Quirky Brilliance of the 33rd Ig Nobel Awards

In the hallowed halls of Harvard University, there exists an annual tradition, now in its 33rd year, that brings a different kind of reverence to the world of academia. Known as the Ig Nobel Awards, this event bestows upon its honorees an accolade unlike any other: the recognition for conducting research that first makes people chuckle, then ponder the deeper implications.

This year, the format of the ceremony, for reasons dictated by the ongoing impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, was a pre-recorded online event. This is a departure from its previous live stints at Harvard University, but it has in no way dulled the sparkle of this unique gathering. Despite the virtual setting, ten teams and individuals from various corners of the world were celebrated with spoof prizes, ensuring that the spirit of the event remained alive and kicking.

In the vast universe of scientific research, there are studies and experiments that defy traditional explanations and yet add a certain depth and dimension to our understanding of the world. This year’s Ig Nobels celebrated precisely these efforts.

The Rock-Licking Phenomenon

Enter Jan Zalasiewicz from Poland. To an outsider, the act of a scientist licking rocks might seem like an eccentric quirk at best. However, Zalasiewicz took it upon himself to demystify this curious habit, which is surprisingly common among geologists and paleontologists.

In a piece penned for The Palaeontological Association newsletter back in 2017, he offered an explanation that juxtaposes the simplicity of the act against its scientific relevance. “Licking the rock,” Zalasiewicz explained, “is part of the geologist’s and paleontologist’s armory of tried-and-much-tested techniques used to help survive in the field.” He elaborated on the rationale behind this, noting that moistening the rock surface makes fossil and mineral textures far more distinguishable, contrasting starkly against the confusing mix of reflections and refractions from a parched surface.

This insightful exposition earned Zalasiewicz the chemistry and geology prize at the Ig Nobels, proving that sometimes, the most unorthodox methods are grounded in solid reason.

Spiders in Robotics

Another winner that might first inspire a double-take is the international team from India, China, Malaysia, and the United States. Their area of focus? Dead spiders and their potential applications in mechanical engineering.

In a paper featured in Advanced Science in July 2022, the team delved deep into the remarkable world of biotic materials—materials that have been fine-tuned by nature over millennia. They presented a compelling argument, suggesting that humans, instead of reinventing the wheel, can leverage these naturally optimized materials for modern applications. Drawing parallels with our ancestors who wore animal hides and utilized bones as tools, they introduced the idea of using spiders, especially dead ones, as critical components in robotic gripping tools.

The essence of their argument rested on the ease of procuring these materials and their subsequent implementation. The dead spider, they argued, could serve as an invaluable model for a robotic gripper, demonstrating the nexus between nature, engineering, and innovation.

Other Honorable Mentions

The Ig Nobels, in their distinctive style, also applauded teams that explored varied and intriguing topics:

  • The interconnectedness of teacher boredom and its influence on student ennui.
  • The intriguing effect of anchovies’ mating habits on the mixing of oceanic waters.
  • The alteration of food flavors through the use of electrified cutlery, such as chopsticks and drinking straws.

Each of these studies, in their own right, showcases the brilliant absurdity that sometimes intertwines with serious scientific endeavors.

Behind the Scenes of the Ig Nobels

The event, as unique as its winners, is produced by the magazine “Annals of Improbable Research”. The Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association and the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students are the proud sponsors of this yearly extravaganza.

A glance at the “Annals of Improbable Research” website provides a succinct yet poignant description of the awards’ essence: “Each winner [or winning team] has done something that makes people LAUGH, then THINK.”


In an era where scientific research often seems inaccessible and esoteric to the general public, the Ig Nobel awards stand as a testament to the fact that science can be both fun and profound. They serve as a reminder that curiosity, even if it makes us chuckle initially, can lead to revelations that expand our understanding of the world.

Through their celebration of the humorous, peculiar, and occasionally absurd in scientific research, the Ig Nobels encourage us all to look at the world with a fresh perspective, to question the status quo, and most importantly, to never lose our sense of wonder.

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