How very Ig Noble of you

Morning all, hope you have a fabulous week, as we slowly slip into silly season. And speaking of silly, here’s yesterday’s Sunday Times column:


This week I was reminded that there are two schools of science out there, serious science and silly science. Finding a cure for cancer, or working on cloning or cryogenics could be considered serious science, whilst silly science is more along the lines of inventing the slinky or measuring people’s brainwave patterns while they chew on different flavours of gum, to see what happens.

Of course silly science doesn’t carry quite the same gravitas as serious science, but imagine a world without silly putty, play dough, or bright blue jelly? It just wouldn’t be the same.

In fact the silly sciences are so important that they even have their own annual awards. Announced around the same time as the Nobel Prize every year, The IgNoble Awards are given out for the year’s top ten scientific achievements that not only make people laugh, but make them think too. The awards are intended to ‘celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative, and spur people’s interest in science, medicine and technology.’

The prizes are awarded to real research and are handed out by genuine Nobel laureates. They’re clearly a celebration of the fine art of curiosity. And judging by 2012’s winners, they simply get curiouser and curiouser.

This year’s winners included a study entitled ‘Leaning to the Left Makes the Eiffel Tower Seem Smaller’, by a team of Dutch scientists. The anatomy prize went to scientists who discovered that chimpanzees can actually identify each other individually from photographs of their butts.

The literature prize went to the US Government General Accountability Office (the what now?) who won for ‘Issuing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports.’ If you can make head or tail of that then you deserve an award too.

Hair seemed to be a hot topic this year with the chemistry prize going to a scientist who solved the puzzle of why in certain houses in Anderlov (Sweden), people’s hair turned green.And the physics Ig Noble went to three scientists who calculated the balance of forces that shape and move the hair in the human ponytail.

Perhaps I’m oversimplifying their work, having not read their paper, ‘Shape of a Ponytail and the Statistical Physics of Hair Fiber Bundles’, but I’m surprised that took three of them months of sciencey research to figure out. I could have told them it’s wind in the first five minutes and then they could have spent the rest of their research time and money getting pizza.

Some of the studies do feel a little like junior-school science-fair projects. I kept expecting to read about a prize for a scientist who made a working volcano out of Papier Mache, vinegar and baking soda. But before we relegate these awards to the crazy pile, not all of them are completely ridiculous. In fact some of our greatest inventions have come out of mistakes, or bizarre notions.

Like the winner of this year’s Peace Ig Nobel, which went to a Russian company that figured out how to convert old Russian ammunition into diamonds. If you ask me, anyone who can turn bullets into three carat drop earrings and a pendant deserves more than an award. Somebody give them an island.

It’s certainly an improvement on the 2009 Chemistry Ig Noble, which went to a Mexican team who figured out how to turn tequila into diamonds. It’s thanks to these awesome advancements in science that we can now have our diamonds without any threat to our tequila.

History has shown that lots of trivial research has led to important scientific breakthroughs. Nothing could be more trivial than an apple falling out of a tree and bonking someone on the head, and look where that’s left us.

Even the humble bra, besides being a great invention on its own, has led to another marvelous invention. In 2009 a scientist won an Ig Noble for inventing a bra that can quickly convert into a protective face mask, with a built in radiation sensor. While I do think it’s a genius idea, I worry that in the event of a nuclear attack, only women and the men who wear bras will be saved. I’m not sure that’s a world I want to live in. Perhaps for next year’s Ig Nobles someone will invent men’s underpants that turn into a face mask. Although come to think of it most people would rather breathe in radiation than men’s underpants.

Ultimately, whether it’s gas masks made from jocks or in-depth studies of The Five Second Rule, we probably shouldn’t be too snobby about science. Who knows, the next time you leave a battery in your jean pocket by accident, pour too much bleach into the washing machine, then put it on the very hot spin cycle by mistake, you might just be creating diamonds. Or if you’re lucky, tequila.

The actual wonder bra

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