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Last Updated: Monday, 13 March 2006, 15:14 GMT
The 'butter-side-down' school of science

To mark National Science Week, past winners of the most infamous prize in academia are touring the country to explain, among other things, the logic of making locusts watch repeated highlights of Star Wars and how ostriches fancy humans.

Can people swim faster in water than in syrup? Clue: intuition, in this case, does not win the day.

Professor Edward Cussler proved as much in his academic paper, Will Humans Swim Faster or Slower in Syrup? published in an esteemed periodical, which won him, and co-author Brian Gettelfinger, a 2005 Ig Nobel award for chemistry.

"Most people expect that the swimmers should go slower, but most engineering correlations predict that their speed should be unchanged," explains Mr Cussler, from his office in the University of Minnesota.

There was only one way to find out for sure - well, two ways in fact, but the generous offer of 20 lorries-full of free corn syrup had to be vetoed for fear it would clog up sewage pipes. Instead, the pair filled a swimming pool with water containing a thickening agent and Mr Gettelfinger, an elite swimmer, dived in.

We were not rolling about laughing, although there were some wry smiles in the pub
Dr Charles Paxton on his human-ostrich relations
Turns out he could swim every bit as fast in the syrup-like solution as in ordinary water.

The Ig Nobels have been championing the "butter-side-down" school of human endeavour - so-called after all those experiments to discover whether a falling slice of toast is more likely to land on its buttered side than not - for 15 years. In university science labs the world over they have a legendary status.

This week, Marc Abrahams, who is based at Harvard University in the US, will be touring the UK with a small coterie or former winners, as part of National Science Week.

Often the titles of the winning papers are masterpieces of scientific obscurity:

  • Salmonella Excretion in Joy-Riding Pigs
  • The Effects of Unilateral Forced Nostril Breathing on Cognition
  • The Effect of Country Music on Suicide
  • An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep Over Various Surfaces.

    All were genuine research papers published in academic journals. The Ig Nobels - the guiding principle of which is to reward research which makes people laugh and then think - celebrate the unsung highlights of academic research.

    Ig Nobels awards ceremony
    The 2005 awards, with the paper planes that are a ceremony-tradition
    "There are 10,000 academic journals out there which publish original research and which are mostly ignored by everyone except those who wrote them," says Mr Abrahams.

    He receives about 5,000 nominations a year for the 10 prizes he hands out, categories for which - chemistry, biology, literature, peace, etc - mirror those of the real Nobels.

    The link goes further - each year the "Igs" enlist a handful of real Nobel prize winners to si