What Is the Ig Nobel Prize? Strange Studies on Cat Purrs, Cinema Smells Among Winners

The winners of the 2021 Ig Nobel Prize have been announced including an analysis of purring in cats, the measurement of odors in the cinema produced in reaction to scary or emotional scenes, and the evolution of beards as protection against face-punching.

The ceremony was held online for the first time and continued the tradition the awards have for honoring some of the funniest, yet still thought-provoking research of the previous year.

The Ig Nobel prize is a nod to the more prestigious, well-known, and lucrative, Nobel Prize awards, which will be handed out from Stockholm and Oslo next month.

The Ig Nobels were founded in 1991 as a parody of the Nobel Prize and the ceremony has been held in September at around the same time as those awards ever since. Since 1994 the awards ceremony is usually held at the Sanders Theater at Harvard University and closes with the line If you didn't win a prize—and especially if you did—better luck next year!"

The man behind the awards is Marc Abrahams, the editor and co-founder of the magazine Annals of Improbable Research. "The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative - and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology," Abrahams told BBC News in 2006.

The prize celebrates science from a more unusual angle, highlighting research that may initially provoke laughter, but also provokes thought too. Awards include prizes for biology, physics, medicine, and peace, the latter of which was won this year by the aforementioned "beard evolution" research.

The Ig Nobel Prize for biology was given to Susanne Schötz an associate professor at Lund University, Sweden who currently heads up the Meowsic department that studies melody in cat-human communication. She won the prize for analyzing variations in purring, meowing, moaning, hissing, yowling, howling, growling, and other modes of cat-human communication.

The prize for chemistry was given to Jörg Wicke and colleagues for their study "Cinema Data Mining: The Smell of Fear" in which the researchers collected and measured odors from a cinema. They attempted to use the odors as a predictor of human reactions to stimuli like violence, sex, antisocial behavior, drug use, and bad language in the movie the audience is watching.

Professor of biology at the University of Utah, David Carrier, was behind the Ig Nobel peace prize-winning research that he and his colleagues did into discovering if men evolved beards as protection during fistfights.

The researcher told The Guardian they were initially unsure about taking part in the ceremony, but after some research decided to accept the award in the good-natured spirit it is intended.

"It's not that beards provide a lot of protection. A really strong punch is always going to be dangerous," Carrier said. "What we can say is that they provide some protection to the bones and skin."

Other Ig Nobel award winners this year were recognized for analyzing bacteria in discarded chewing gum, assessing the benefits of transporting rhinos upside down, and measuring the relationship between the level of corruption in a country and the obesity of its politicians.

The winners will join previous Ig Nobel Award recipients like the 2000 winners of the Ig Nobel Prize in Physics who sealed the win by levitating a frog with magnets, and the 2006 Ig Nobel Peace Prize winner from Wales who developed a sonic device to repel teenagers.

Even the British Royal Navy has received an Ig Nobel Prize in the past. In 2000 the navy took the peace prize for ordering sailors to stop using live ammo in testing, instead, instructing them to shout "bang" as cannons are fired.

Cat's Meow
Stock image of Dennis, an eartipped "Blue Collar" cat. Ig Noble winning research on cat acoustics could explain what he's trying to say with his meows. AFP via Getty Images/ANNA-ROSE GASSOT