File photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: PMO.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been awarded the Ig Nobel Prize for 2020 for his contributions to medical education, alongside the heads of the governments of Brazil, the UK, Mexico, Belarus, the US, Turkey, Russia and Turkmenistan.
The Ig Nobel Prizes are satirical prizes awarded every year by a magazine named Annals of Improbable Research, specialising in humorous coverage and discussions of scientific developments. The name of the prizes is a play on the word ‘ignoble’, which is an antonym of ‘noble’, and the name of ‘Nobel’.
As Sangeeta Balakrishnan, a chemistry teacher in Chennai, wrote for The Wire in September 2016:
“The awards are presented by Nobel laureates at a grand, rather quirky, ceremony in the Sanders Theatre at Harvard University. The awardees have exactly 60 seconds to present their acceptance speech. A forbidding eight-year-old girl appointed for the purpose makes her displeasure known when the 60-second rule is violated. She simply gets on the stage and coos: ‘Please stop, I am bored.’ The trick works. Watched by a thousand-odd spectators in the theatre, who are also given the chance to shoot paper aeroplanes on to the stage, the event is telecast live on the internet.”
But this year, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the event – like many other events – transpired entirely online.
The first prizes were awarded in 1991. Past laureates include Andre Geim, who shared the physics Ig Nobel Prize in 2000 for using magnets to levitate a frog – and shared the physics Nobel Prize in 2010 for his work on graphene.
Modi isn’t the first Indian to win the prize, however, nor is he the most prominent. Previous Indian Ig Nobel laureates include Atal Bihari Vajpayee (peace, 1998), for his “aggressively peaceful” detonation of a nuclear weapon; Chittaranjan Andrade and B.S. Srihari (public health, 2001), for finding that adolescents often pick their noses; K.P. Sreekumar and G. Nirmalan (math, 2002), for estimating the surface area of elephants; and Lal Bihari (peace, 2003), for creating the Association of Dead People. There are other laureates with Indian affiliations as well.
In addition, Modi shared the Ig Nobel Prize for medical education with Jair Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Alexander Lukashenko, Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow. According to the citation, the recognition is “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.”
The governments of India and Pakistan also share the Ig Nobel Prize for peace this year, “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.”
“Islamabad has recalled its high commissioner to Delhi for ‘consultations’ amid a row between the neighbours about the alleged harassment of each country’s diplomats and their families. The mistreatment allegedly includes tailing the cars of high commission officials, cutting off water and electricity supplies and ringing the doorbells of senior diplomatic staff at 3 am and then fleeing,” The Guardian reported in 2018. “It is understood that India’s deputy high commissioner in Islamabad, J.P. Singh, has complained about being victim of the latter, as has his Pakistani counterpart in Delhi.
Narendra Modi was included among this year’s laureates presumably for his government’s response to India’s COVID-19 epidemic – typified today by the world’s fastest-growing case load, disconnect with ground realities, complaints of fatality underreporting and data suppression, and opaque administration.
The other laureates this year are (quoted verbatim from the Annals website):
- Acoustics – Stephan Reber, Takeshi Nishimura, Judith Janisch, Mark Robertson and Tecumseh Fitch, for inducing a female Chinese alligator to bellow in an airtight chamber filled with helium-enriched air.
- Psychology – Miranda Giacomin and Nicholas Rule, for devising a method to identify narcissists by examining their eyebrows.
- Physics – Ivan Maksymov and Andriy Pototsky, for determining, experimentally, what happens to the shape of a living earthworm when one vibrates the earthworm at high frequency.
- Economics – Christopher Watkins, Juan David Leongómez, Jeanne Bovet, Agnieszka Żelaźniewicz, Max Korbmacher, Marco Antônio Corrêa Varella, Ana Maria Fernandez, Danielle Wagstaff and Samuela Bolgan, for trying to quantify the relationship between different countries’ national income inequality and the average amount of mouth-to-mouth kissing.
- Management – Five professional hitmen in Guangxi, China, who managed a contract for a hit job in the following way: After accepting payment to perform the murder, Xi Guang-An subcontracted the task to Mo Tian-Xiang, who then subcontracted the task to Yang Kang-Sheng, who then subcontracted the task to Yang Guang-Sheng, who then subcontracted the task to Ling Xian-Si, with each subsequently enlisted hitman receiving a smaller percentage of the fee, and nobody actually performing a murder.
- Entomology – Richard Vetter, for collecting evidence that many entomologists (scientists who study insects) are afraid of spiders, which are not insects.
- Nienke Vulink, Damiaan Denys, and Arnoud van Loon, for diagnosing a long-unrecognised medical condition: misophonia, the distress at hearing other people make chewing sounds.
- Materials science – Metin Eren, Michelle Bebber, James Norris, Alyssa Perrone, Ashley Rutkoski, Michael Wilson and Mary Ann Raghanti, for showing that knives manufactured from frozen human faeces do not work well.
As Balakrishnan wrote:
“The Ig Nobels do not ridicule science. On the contrary, they make it evident that science is fun. The Ig Nobels break stereotypes. They enable students to realise that a scientist isn’t a weird looking, bespectacled person with unkempt hair attired in a lab coat embellished with a pocket protector. These are the awards that tell students that everyday things have a research question latent in them. They give students the lifetime pass to think crazy, and come up with zany ideas. And then use the scientific method to whittle and sieve the idea through.”