Working at the frontiers of knowledge – and the edge of reason

The Ig Nobel Prize is science at its most curious, writes Irteza Ishraq

Photo: Bustle

Last week, researchers and humanitarians around the world held their breath as the Nobel committee recognised the most significant advances of culture and science – earlier this month, almost 6000 kilometers away at Harvard University, a slightly different (and arguably less prestigious) ceremony honored the most improbable.

Since 1991, the Ig Nobel Prize (a pun on the word ignoble) has sought to recognize real research that “first makes you laugh, then makes you think”, with previous winners pondering into the forces required to drag sheep, and the probability of a cow lying down.

The 26th Ig Nobel Prize brought the same level of inquisition and quirky inspiration that only the Ig Nobels do. For 2017 Ig Nobel Physics laureate and post-doctorate at the Paris Diderot University, Marc-Antoine Fardin, it was noticing the shared ability of fluids and cats to take the shape of their containers that lead him to attempt to calculate the Deborah number of a cat (a ratio expressing the viscosity and elasticity of a material) – concluding that its state was dependent on its ability to relax, with that depending on a myriad of reasons requiring further questioning.

From the UK, GP James Heathcote took to answer the observations of many GPs – why do older people have bigger ears? Approaching 206 patients, a Heathcote and a team of four GPs established a correlation indicating that our ears grow by an average of 0.22mm per year, their success garnering Heathcote the 2017 Ig Nobel in Anatomy.

Oxford hasn’t been short of Ig laureates in the past either. Somerville’s Dr. Helen Ashdown, who shared the 2015 Diagnostic Medicine Ig Nobel Prize for determining that acute appendicitis can be accurately diagnosed by the amount of pain evident when the patient is driven over speed bumps. Noticing in her time as a junior doctor that colleagues would often ask potential appendicitis patients about any potential pain whilst driving over speed bumps on the way to the hospital, Ashdown and fellow researchers found a 97% sensitivity rate between appendicitis and pain felt during driving over a speed bump.

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In a press release on regarding the speed bump test, Dr. Ashdown claimed that for diagnosing appendicitis, “in terms of sensitivity of the test actually performed better than some of the tests that doctors very commonly use.”

Joining Dr. Ashdown in Oxford’s Ig Nobel laureates list is fellow of Somerville Professor Charles Spence, winning the infamous prize in 2018 for electronically modifying the sound of a potato chip to make the person chewing the chip believe it to be crisper and fresher than it really is.

Professor Spence’s experiment involved 20 volunteers taking a single bite of Pringle, whilst wearing headphones that would modulate the crunch of the initial bite. His results indicated that “potato chips were judged to be fresher and crisper when the overall sound level was increased and/or when the high frequency components of the biting sound was amplified.”

Though it’s easy to dismiss the Ig Nobel as simply a gimmick, it’s often demonstrations of curiosity and ingenuity that brings out the best in science. Recall the case of Andre Geim – currently the only winner of both a Nobel and Ig Nobel prize.

First gaining attention from winning the Ig Nobel prize for levitating frogs in extremely strong magnetic fields, Geim went on to win his Nobel prize through his continually innovative methods of experimentation, eventually isolating Graphene, a single-layered carbon structure with incredible conductive and structural capabilities, through repeatedly peeling off layers of graphite using gecko tape.

The Ig Nobel is science at its most curious, and that in itself deserves recognition. So as we head towards a week of marvelling at the advances human knowledge by Nobel laureates, spare a thought for the Ig Nobel laureates continuing the curious nature that makes science so appealing.