The IgNobel prize honours the most baffling questions that science has to offer, giving centre stage to papers which make you laugh at first, but then lead you to a deeper level of thought. Given the recent release of the 2017 prize-winners, it seems only right to give some (dis)honourable mentions to the questions that they have so valiantly asked for science!
The IgNobel prize honours the most baffling questions that science has to offer
Physics: Can a cat be both a solid and a liquid?
Rheology – the study of the flow of matter, and the subject of our first paper, which asks the question do cats flow? Obviously, everything flows, for a given value of flow. But cats appear to have the remarkable ability to fit in just about any container, even if they do not have the ability to extricate themselves. Whilst a heavy air of sarcasm runs through this paper, it poses some interesting questions about our need to classify things, breaking them down into finite groups when such groups rarely exist. For this alone it is a worthy winner of an IgNobel prize!
Fluid Dynamics: A study on coffee spilling. Why do we spill coffee as we walk?
This paper tackles a bane of everyday life. However, the answer is deceptively simple: the classic cylindrical coffee mug is not well designed to contain liquid, as it resonates up and down as you walk, causing the coffee to spill over the side and get your shoes wet. It must be noted that this paper goes beyond answering the question and proposes radical solutions, suggesting new ways of holding your beverage and even designing new spill-proof cups. Solving one of the most dire first world problems surely means that it deserves an award, right?
Anatomy: Why do old men have big ears?
A chance observation put under scientific scrutiny. Members of the Royal College of General Practitioners were asked how best to get GPs involved in regular research when someone, in a moment of pure erudition, asked the question “Why do old men have big ears?”. This simple statement caused immense debate and was eventually put to the test. It turns out that average ears size does increase as you age (increasing an average of 0.2 cm/year) but this stands out as a prime example of the scientific method, as posited by the likes of Kuhn and Einstein: a chance observation put to the test in (relatively) rigorous experimental conditions to achieve a fact-based answer. Also of note is the willingness of those asked to take part in the study, showing how public interest and involvement are of vital importance to the scientific community.
these are just a selection of the papers that are out there…You may just find something that makes you laugh, possibly even making you think – just a little bit!
Cognition: Is that me or my twin?
Despite increasing interest in twin studies, the ability of adult identical twins to discriminate their own faces from those of their twins has hardly been investigated. Given the high amount of resemblance between twins we are missing out on a unique opportunity to study how we process faces. This paper highlights a previously ignored opportunity, as well as throwing up some interesting questions about perception and our own concept of self.
Economics: The effect of crocodiles on gambling.
They say never smile at a crocodile, but should you gamble with one? The answer depends. When “at-risk” people were set to gambling after being given a saltwater crocodile to hold, those who reported few negative emotions placed higher average bets, whereas those who reported many negative emotions placed lower average bets. This may seem random but it demonstrates what happens when we are placed in a state of emotional arousal, and how this affects our behaviour, which is a very important question with vast implications for sociological and behavioural sciences.
For what it’s worth, these are just a selection of the papers that are out there. More information about the prizes and a full list of winners from this and previous years can be found online. You may just find something that makes you laugh, possibly even making you think – just a little bit!