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Today I learned about the Ig Noble prizes, which "honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative - and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology."

Some people covet it, others flee from it. Some see it as a hallmark of civilization, others as a scuff mark. Some laugh with it, others laugh at it. Many praise it, a few condemn it, others are just mystified. And many people are madly in love with it.

It is the Ig Nobel Prize.

This is the ninth year we've been awarding Ig Nobel Prizes. Perhaps you have been lucky enough to win one. That's not quite as improbable as it may sound: many of the 976 cowinners of the 1993 Ig Nobel Literature Prize may still be unaware of their good fortune. It's not clear whether these individuals, who coauthored a paper that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine (vol. 329, no. 10), ever exchange information or hellos, or have even heard each others' names spoken. Their paper, by the way, was remarkable for having 100 times as many authors as pages - that is what won them the prize.

Each year, ten Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded. The selection criterion is simple. The prizes are for "achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced." Examine that phrase carefully. It covers a lot of ground. It says nothing as to whether a thing is good or bad, commendable or pernicious...

I raise this matter of good or bad, because the world in general seems to enjoy classifying things as being either one or the other. The Ig Nobel Prizes aside, most prizes, in most places, for most purposes are clearly designed to sanctify the goodness or badness of the recipients. Olympic medals go to very good athletes. Worst-dressed prizes go to badly dressed celebrities. Nobel Prizes go to scientists, writers, and others who excel. Occasional mistakes and omissions happen, sure, but these prizes, and most others, are meant to honor the extremes of humanity - those whose achievements should be seen as very good or very bad.

The Ig Nobel Prize isn't like that. The Ig, as it is known, honors the great muddle in which most of us exist much of the time. Life is confusing. Good and bad get all mixed up. Yin can be hard to distinguish from yang. Ditto for data from artifact and, sometimes, up from down...

The Ig Nobel Board of Governors follows the same dictum that is said to inspire physicians: "First, do no harm."

There are in this world people who are quick to judge, condemn, and punish others. Some of these unhappy people are in positions of authority and might be inclined to, say, punish and ridicule someone in their lab who wins a goofy, meaningless prize. Because we know that such people exist, the Ig Nobel Board of Governors consults with scientists who are under strong consideration for an Ig, to ask whether winning might in any way cause them professional difficulties. In cases where there appears to be a genuine risk, the Prize is not awarded to that person, but goes instead to some other, equally worthy soul. To date, this has happened in about six cases.

What Is This Ig?

What did you learn recently?


Original posting by Braincrave Second Life staff on May 3, 2011 at http://www.braincrave.com/viewblog.php?id=546

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