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Learning to revel in the odd with the Ig Nobel

by Mark Schreiber

“I noticed there was a suspicious-looking email in my in box with the subject ‘Ig Nobel’ and ‘Congratulations.’ At first I thought it was some kind of spam. I was going to disregard it, but then I recalled the famous Ig Nobel awards,” relates Dr. Masanori Niimi of Teikyo University in Shukan Shincho (Oct. 31). “Still, I suspected it might be a phony message. Then, two days later, I received a mail from a fellow researcher urging me to ‘accept the award for Japan’s honor.’ That’s when I realized the mail was the real thing.”

This year Japan was “honored” again with not one but two Ig Nobel awards. Niimi’s team received the medicine prize for its work in “assessing the effect of listening to opera on heart-transplant patients who are mice.” And Shinsuke Imai et al were awarded the chemistry prize for their paper discovering that “the biochemical process by which onions make people cry is even more complicated than scientists previously realized.”

The 2013 awards marked the 14th and 15th garnered by Japanese since 1992. In the inaugural year, a team at the Shiseido Research Center in Yokohama received the medicine award for a study titled “Elucidation of Chemical Compounds Responsible for Foot Malodour,” which concluded that people who think they have foot odor actually do have it, and those who don’t think so do not.

“In the early years we did not try as hard to get in touch with every winner,” awards organizer Marc Abrahams told me in an email. “After a few years, we decided that we should adopt a policy of, whenever possible, quietly offering each winner the prize, giving them the opportunity to decline the honor. Happily, most of the people who are offered prizes do decide to accept them, and most of those winners also decide to come be present at the ceremony.”

By their third year, the awards were attracting increasing coverage in the Japanese media. It its issue of Dec. 22, 1994, Sapio magazine ran an article about the awards, which it described somewhat unkindly as the Oobaka Nobel-sho (the Completely Idiotic Nobel Prizes).

This year’s award ceremony, held on Sept. 12 at Harvard’s Sanders Theater, received several minutes of coverage on NHK’s 7 p.m. news. And from the announcer’s upbeat tone of voice, one might almost have thought the Japanese scientists had been tabbed to receive a “real” Nobel Prize, which the “Igs” — taken from the word “ignoble,” which in this case means “of humble origin or social status” — are clearly meant to parody.

Writing in Aera (Oct. 7), U.S.-based Asahi Shimbun correspondent Shiro Yukikata ran an article titled “Kijin, henjin wo hokoru bunka” (“A culture that takes pride in oddballs and eccentrics”). Noting that this year was the seventh straight in which Japanese had won an award, Yukikata posed the question: What gives Japan such strengths?

“In most countries, people who have eccentric ideas are disliked or even punished or treated as if their existence is shameful,” explained Abrahams, whose other claim to fame is editor of the scientific humor magazine and website Annals of Improbable Research (www.improbable.com). “Japan and the U.K. are notable, being proud that a few of their citizens have eccentric ideas that — who knows — might turn out to be useful or important, or might inspire other people to have innovative ideas.”

Previous Japanese winners have generated some memorable moments. In 2004, Daisuke Inoue, the man credited with inventing karaoke, received the Ig Nobel Peace Prize for “providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other.” In lieu of an acceptance speech, he belted out “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” and received a standing ovation.

“The inventor of karaoke inspired — instantly — almost wild adulation and love,” Abrahams recalls. “He spoke no English, and very few people here speak any Japanese — but somehow he was able to have real and deep conversations with people, through gestures and song. People were thrilled and honored that he came here, and that they got to see him.”

Another of Abrahams’ favorites was prolific inventor Dr. NakaMats (real name: Yoshiro Nakamatsu).

“He came here the year he won his prize (2005), and again a few years later to take another bow at the ceremony. He is the only human being I have ever met who reminds me of the Wizard of Oz — but I understand that many people react to him differently. I disagree with those people. To me, Dr. Nakamats is the Wizard of Oz.”

Nevertheless, a small number of Japanese nominees have declined the award.

“A few people simply do not want the attention that an Ig Nobel prize would bring, and a few other people feel their work is too important to also be amusing,” said Abrahams. “Most of the time, we have found that our formula — ‘makes people laugh, and then makes them think’ — resonates deeply in Japan.”