Harvard Honors Strangest Discoveries In Science With Ig Nobels

The awards honor “discoveries that cannot, or should not, be reproduced.”

Some scientists who make astonishing breakthroughs win a Nobel Prize.

But there are others whose discoveries make people think, “Wow, it’s astonishing someone actually thought to study that.”

Things like how polyester pants affect the sex life of rats, what it’s like for a human to live like a badger and how different the world looks when viewed through your legs.

For those brave scientists, there are the Ig Nobel Prizes, which are annually given out by the Annals of Improbable Research to “discoveries that cannot, or should not, be reproduced.”

The Ig Nobels were handed out for the 26th year Thursday night at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by a group of actual Nobel Prize winners.

The awards are intended to honor accomplishments in science and humanities that make one laugh, then think.

“The prizes are for something pretty unusual,” said Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, and host of the awards. “Almost any other kind of award is for the best or worst. Best or worst is irrelevant to us.”

Timeliness is also of limited consideration: The Ig Nobel Reproduction Prize went to the late Ahmed Shafik of Egypt, who died in 2007, for a 1993 paper documenting that rats who wore polyester or polyester-cotton blend pants were less sexually active than those who wore cotton or wool pants or conformed to rat norms and wore no garments of any kind.

The paper suggested that “electrostatic fields” created by polyester pants could play a role in impotence.

“We have never heard of anybody else who carefully spent time examining what happens sexually to rats if you put pants on them,” Abrahams said.

Two Britons split this year’s Biology Ig Nobel. Oxford University fellow Charles Foster, was honored for his book “Being a Beast,” chronicling his experiments in living as a badger, including digging a den to sleep in and eating worms.

Countryman Thomas Thwaites’ work was in a similar vein; he built a set of prosthetic leg extensions to try living like a goat in Switzerland.

Japan’s Atsuki Higashiyama and Kohei Adachi were granted the Perception Ig Nobel for a paper on how objects look different when one bends over and views them through one’s legs.

The group also took a dig at Volkswagen AG, lauding it in chemistry for engineering its vehicles to produce fewer emissions “whenever the cars are being tested.”

Volkswagen’s award was more ignominious, going to the company for equipping its vehicles with a “defeat device,” which activated the emission controls of an engine undergoing government tests and deactivated them afterward.

VW has already agreed to spend up to $16.5 billion to address U.S. environmental, state and owner claims.

Reuters contributed to this story.

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