Scientists have a sense of humour too!

Dr. Elena Bodnar at the 2009 Ig-Nobel ceremony (licenced under Google creative commons).

Dr. Elena Bodnar won the 2009 Ig-Nobel prize for inventing a brassiere that quickly converts into a pair of gas masks. This seems like a strange concept, but scientists all around the world have a similar humourous take on scientific research.

The Ig-Nobel prize is awarded yearly for scientists that conduct improbable research, which is defined as that which makes us laugh, and then think. The board awards 10 prizes per year, each celebrating improbable research in fields ranging from medicine and psychology to literature and peace.

Some of my favourites from 2011 were:

Medicine prize – for 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.

Biology prize – for discovering that a certain kind of beetle mates with a certain kind of Australian beer bottle.

Peace prize – for demonstrating that the problem of illegally parked luxury cars can be solved by running them over with a tank.

My favourite by far was the Chemistry prize that was awarded to a group of Japanese scientists for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm.

Makoto Imai and colleagues at the 2011 Ig-Nobel ceremony (Image licenced under Google creative commons).

The sense of humour of these group of researchers around the world is admirable and inspiring to say the least. The prizes are awarded by genuine Nobel prize winners and the crowd embraces the humour of the entire ceremony by yelling out at presenters if they waffle on about their work and throwing paper planes at the stage (a long-standing tradition).

Although these awards go out to ‘improbable’ research that tends to give people something to laugh about, most of the research and developments work towards real-life problems. The 2006 winners in biology conducted a study that demonstrated that one of the malaria mosquitoes (Anopheles gambiae) was attracted equally to the smell of Limburger cheese and the smell of human feet. This later on led to the placement of traps baited with Limburger cheese in areas of Africa to combat the malaria epidemic.

So how does this affect all of us? Apart from giving us something great to laugh about, it is clear from our studies in science communication that public perception is key for scientific advances. If science is not communicated in the right way, it can hinder the impact and validity of scientific research. This makes me think, we don’t all have to be typical scientists (I have to refer back to the Turbo Encabulator). We have the potential to conduct really great and interesting research, that makes us laugh! By tackling research problems like these guys do, I think we have a greater potential to invite the layman into our in depth conversations with a bit of Ig-Nobel humour.

Ultimately, our goal as science communicators is to reach out to the general public and make science interesting. So the next time someone assumes that science is boring and nerdy, refer them to this wonderful list of improbable research. I tend to visit their website every now and again when I am looking to have a laugh. Head to for a much longer list of past winners.

Hope you all enjoy!!

5 Responses to “Scientists have a sense of humour too!”

  1. Sila says:

    Thanks Aziz! I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one that is fascinated by this event. My lecturer brought a whole list to class last year and we were all in hysterics – it definitely was a great way to bring some humour to our class discussion!

  2. Aziz says:

    Wow I thought I was the only one looking into these Ig-Nobel prize winners. It is funny really since it is one of those websites that I give out to people when they want to see something funny about scientists and how serious it can be taken into account.
    I actually heard of the Ig-Nobel prize gig from reading a book called “Stupid Science” by Leland Gregory, I recommend anyone who wants a few laughs about science reads it.
    Thanks for the post Sila great way to enlighten people about these kinds of award ceremonies hah.

  3. Sila says:

    Thanks for your comments guys! I hope this will serve as a source of inspiration for future unimelb research or even blog posts to come.

  4. Justine says:

    Thank you, Thank you!
    I am very fond of the winning studies ‘No Evidence Of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise Geochelone carbonaria,” and the UK group confirming the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain. REFERENCE: “Swearing as a Response to Pain,”
    It would be good to see a team from the University of Melbourne up in the winning categories next year.

  5. Marco Papageorgiou says:

    I really enjoyed this piece Sila!
    Its good to know that there is research being done in areas others would never delve into.
    I never knew about the Ig-Nobel prize, i personally think it would be great to communicate the funny side of science to the general public, that is, to see more articles in this manner within popular newspapers.
    Nice work!