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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 sign the winning certificates, proving that even the world's foremost thinkers can unfurrow their brows once in a while.

    Yet to Ig Nobel winners themselves, the innate humour of their work is not always apparent - a point proved by Dr Charles Paxton, co-author of the Ig Nobel-winning 1998 research paper Courtship Behaviour of Ostriches Towards Humans.

    The research came about after efforts to stimulate an ostrich farming industry in the UK in the 1990s stalled partly because the giant birds were not reproducing.

    Dr Paxton and three cohorts set about studying ostrich mating patterns, only to discover that, the creatures tended to direct their mating rituals at the researchers rather than their avian equals.

    "It appeared to us the female ostriches were directing their sexual behaviour more to us," says Mr Paxton, who is appearing on the current Ig Nobel tour.

    Claire Rind
    Popcorn? Claire Rind settles a locust for a spot of Star Wars watching
    "We were not rolling about laughing. There were some wry smiles in the pub, but when we wrote the paper I didn't think anything of the title at all."

    Another star of this year's tour is Claire Rind, of Newcastle University, who won a 2005 Ig Nobel for her work showing edited extracts of Star Wars to insects.

    The reason? In research part-funded by car-maker Volvo, Dr Rind was trying to track whether locusts - whose neuro-circuitry have, apparently, been extensively mapped - could detect imminent collisions. What with all the battles between X-wing fighters and Tie fighters, there are lots of those in the original Star Wars.

    "We were studying the responses of visual stimuli. We found locusts have dedicated nerve cells specifically to detect collisions," says Dr Rind.

    The trick for Volvo, now, will be to use the Star Wars research to design an artificial eye for its cars.

    So what does she make of her Ig Nobel? Doesn't the reward trivialise a serious piece of research?

    "I was 80% chuffed, 20% mortified - one doesn't really want to be laughed at," she says. Nevertheless, she accepted and even travelled to last year's prize-giving ceremony at Harvard.

    And without her Ig Nobel, Dr Rind's peculiar research would have gone almost totally unnoticed. The thought that so much hard work is overlooked is what inspires Mr Abrahams more than anything else.

    "Every prize winner has a story worth telling but they wouldn't get that attention from anyone were it not for these," he says. He draws on the example of John Trinkhaus, an octogenarian Ig Nobel winner who had rigorously written more than 80 detailed academic reports about things that annoyed him.

    "An awful lot of everything goes into a vacuum. There are six billion people on this planet and no matter what people do, no matter how great or how terrible, it will almost never get any notice."

    The Ig Nobel tour of the UK runs until Friday, 17 March. See internet links, above right, for more details.

    The message I took from this article may be summed up in the comment from Dr Paxton: "...when we wrote the paper I didn't think anything of the title at all." Scientists too often ignore the importance of language and communication when reporting their results. Poor English is used in such papers. The enevitable result is that the wider public doesn't have a clue about the reason for doing the science. It doesn't matter how good the science is, if you can't express the premise, method and results clearly and without ambiguity.
    Howard, London

    What fun! Please can we have an Ig Nobel Peace Prize? And one for Literature as well?
    Curt Carpenter, Dallas,Tx USA

    My favourite silly science story is of a grant made to a university so they could determine the most popular place name in the UK. Many months (and 's later) guess what the answer was? Yup... High Street!
    Karl Flinter, Hemel Hempstead

    I knew I should have changed the of title my PhD theses,'Automatic generation of accurate advection schemes on unstructured grids and their application to meteorological problems' to something more pithy. 'Weather on Footballs', anyone?
    Ray Lashley, Bristol, UK

    But did the locusts prefer the original trilogy to the prequels? Is there a locust somewhere wearing a tiny t-shirt saying 'Han Shot First'? Enquiring minds want to know!
    Antony Shepherd, Croydon, UK

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