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2020 Ig Nobel Prizes

by Bethany Halford
September 17, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 36


Studies about vibrating earthworms, arachno-adverse entomologists, and alligators bellowing in helium garnered top honors at the 30th Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. The peculiar and popular prizes, which “honor achievements that make people LAUGH, then THINK,” were awarded virtually on Sept. 17 in an event that spanned six continents and allowed actual Nobel laureates to appear to pass the prizes off to the new Ig Nobelists through the ether of the internet. The magazine Annals of Improbable Research produced the event, and its editor, whimsical wit Marc Abrahams, served as master of ceremonies.

A team from Kent State University took home the Materials Science Prize for the paper “Experimental Replication Shows Knives Manufactured from Frozen Human Feces Do Not Work.” The team’s goal was to learn if there was any truth to the tale of an Inuit man who fashioned a knife from his own frozen feces and then used it to butcher a dog and transform its body into a sled and harness (J. Archaeol. Sci.: Rep. 2019, DOI: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2019.102002).

A picture of an earthworm.
Credit: Shutterstock
Shake it up: By vibrating earthworms, researchers hope to push the frontiers of chaotic behavior in biological systems.

Swinburne University of Technology’s Ivan Maksymov and Andrey Pototsky won this year’s Physics Prize “for determining, experimentally, what happens to the shape of a living earthworm when one vibrates the earthworm at high frequency” (Sci. Rep. 2020, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-020-65295-4).

This year’s Entomology Prize was awarded to Richard S. Vetter, a retired researcher from the University of California, Riverside, who conducted a survey that showed that many entomologists, who study insects, are afraid of spiders, which are creepy and crawly but not insects. The results of Vetter’s survey were published in American Entomologist under the title “Arachnophobic Entomologists: When Two More Legs Makes a Big Difference” (2013, DOI: 10.1093/ae/59.3.168).

A bearded man with a towel around his head plucks his right eyebrow with tweezers.
Credit: Shutterstock
Plucky: Narcissists sport distinctive eyebrows.

The 2020 Psychology Prize will undoubtedly raise some eyebrows. Miranda Giacomin, of MacEwan University, and Nicholas O. Rule, of the University of Toronto, plucked that honor “for devising a method to identify narcissists by examining their eyebrows.” Their study shows that distinctive eyebrows may be a sign that someone is a narcissist. “Because grandiose narcissists strongly desire recognition and admiration, they may seek to maintain distinct eyebrows to facilitate others’ ability to notice, recognize, and remember them, thereby increasing their likability and reinforcing their overly positive self-views,” the researchers write (J. Pers. 2018, DOI: 10.1111/jopy.12396).

An international team led by Abertay University’s Christopher D. Watkins claimed the Economics Prize “for trying to quantify the relationship between different countries’ national income inequality and the average amount of mouth-to-mouth kissing” (Sci. Rep. 2019, DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-43267-7).

Psychiatrists at the University of Amsterdam won the Medicine Prize “for diagnosing a long-unrecognized medical condition: Misophonia, the distress at hearing other people make chewing sounds” (PLOS One 2013, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0054706).

Five professional hit men in China were awarded the Management Prize for subcontracting a murder for hire to one another “with each subsequently enlisted hitman receiving a smaller percentage of the fee, and nobody actually performing a murder.”

This Year’s Ig Nobel for Peace went to the governments of India and Pakistan “for having their diplomats surreptitiously ring each other’s doorbells in the middle of the night, and then run away before anyone had a chance to answer the door,” as documented in news reports.

A Chinese alligator tied to a bunch of helium-filled balloons.
Credit: Will Ludwig/C&EN/Shutterstock
Squeaky bellows: Scientists studied the vocalizations that Chinese alligators make when they breathe helium.

Researchers led by Stephan A. Reber, of Lund University, and W. Tecumseh Fitch, of the University of Vienna, earned the Acoustics Prize “for inducing a female Chinese alligator to bellow in an airtight chamber filled with helium-enriched air” (J. Exp. Biol. 2015, DOI: 10.1242/jeb.119552).

Finally, it wouldn’t be 2020 if there weren’t a nod to COVID-19. Several world leaders, including US president Donald J. Trump, Russian president Vladimir Putin, and UK prime minister Boris Johnson, were given the Medical Education Prize “for using the COVID-19 viral pandemic to teach the world that politicians can have a more immediate effect on life and death than scientists and doctors can.”

A recording of the Ig Nobel ceremony will be available at, and National Public Radio’s Science Friday will air an edited recording of the ceremony on Nov. 27, the day after US Thanksgiving.

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