From the sex lives of rats to Volkswagen’s emissions “innovation,” here’s what it takes to win science’s most improbable award

Meet the goat man.
Meet the goat man.
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Based on the Nobel Prizes, the annual Ig Nobel Prizes are designed to honor scientists doing interesting research. But there’s a twist. The committee behind the prize says that an award-winning piece of research must evoke a strong reaction: ”first make people laugh, then make them think.”

The Biology prize went to an Oxford University academic “for living in the wild as, at different times, a badger, an otter, a deer, a fox, and a bird.” And Literature Prize went to a Swedish author “for his three-volume autobiographical work about the pleasures of collecting flies that are dead, and flies that are not yet dead.”

By design, scientists look in unusual places to pursue their curiosities. Most of those places lead to nowhere, but some lead to great discoveries.

As Quartz reported previously:

Several Ig Nobel discoveries have in fact gone on to have practical uses. One previous Ig Nobel prize-winning paper (pdf), on Malaria mosquitoes’ attraction to Limburger cheese, led to scientists carrying Limburger cheese to Africa in a bid to lure Malaria-ridden mosquitoes away from humans.

Another Ig Nobel paper, on the spontaneous knotting of an agitated string (pdf), which proves that string will inevitably tangle itself into knots, has been cited in research on “the why and how of DNA unlinking.”

Here’s the full list of the 2016 Ig Nobel Prizes:

Reproduction Prize: For studying the effects of wearing polyester, cotton, or wool trousers on the sex life of rats, and for conducting similar tests with human males.

Economics Prize: For assessing the perceived personalities of rocks, from a sales and marketing perspective.

Physics Prize: For discovering why white-haired horses are the most horsefly-proof horses, and for discovering why dragonflies are fatally attracted to black tombstones.

Chemistry Prize: For solving the problem of excessive automobile pollution emissions by automatically, electromechanically producing fewer emissions whenever the cars are being tested but continue to emit more carbon dioxide otherwise. (The “innovation” was caught and Volkswagen agreed to pay $15 billion in for its “accidental” emissions.)

Medicine Prize: For discovering that if you have an itch on the left side of your body, you can relieve it by looking into a mirror and scratching the right side of your body (and vice versa).

Psychology Prize: For asking a thousand liars how often they lie, and for deciding whether to believe those answers.

Peace Prize: For their scholarly study called “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit.”

Literature Prize: For his three-volume autobiographical work about the pleasures of collecting flies that are dead, and flies that are not yet dead.

Perception Prize: For investigating whether things look different when you bend over and view them between your legs.