This blog is currently on hiatus owing to work commitments. Whilst I still keep an eye on the goings on at RiAus, and contribute to the work of the good folks at eLife, little will be added to this blog for the foreseeable future. Simon Says remains open for business, albeit at a reduced capacity. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope the archive of content found here will prove to be of interest.

Friday, 1 October 2010

On whale snot and socks covering shoes

WITH the announcement of this year's Nobel prizes to be made shortly comes that other annual science prize ceremony - the Ig Nobels. If you are unaware of what the Ig Nobels are, they are, in a sense, a parody of the Nobels, awarding prizes to researchers who would never get a look in at the true Nobels. But they honour scientists who investigate what they find interesting, no matter how bizarre or tangential. The awards honour those discoveries that "first make people laugh, and then make them think".

I think the Ig Nobels are brilliant, because they honour scientists who do, what is in my mind, true science. I support blue-sky thinking and science for the sake of it, as I have previously written about, because science should always be about sating curiosity, asking questions of the world and going in search of the answers. It can be high brow, as the real Nobels tend to honour (and rightly so, Nobel prize winners have often dedicated their lives to gruelling research and deserve the honours they receive for their discoveries), or completely and utterly low tech. What happens when I do this? How can I improve this? Such questions we ought all to be asking, but we seem to grow up, our childhood intrigue and enthusiasm overtaken by the feeling that the answers to such questions are irrelevant. Far from it, this is the stuff of advance and knowledge. Even the bit about whale snot.

So hurrah to the following, and all those who didn't win as well, because you're all doing great things, and furthering mankind, one crazy notion at a time.

(From news.bbc.co.uk):

Engineering Prize: Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse (UK) and colleagues for perfecting a method to collect whale snot, using a remote-control helicopter.

Medicine Prize: Simon Rietveld (Netherlands) and colleagues for discovering that symptoms of asthma can be treated with a roller-coaster ride.

Transportation Planning Prize: Toshiyuki Nakagaki (Japan) and colleagues for using slime mould to determine the optimal routes for railroad tracks.

Physics Prize: Lianne Parkin (New Zealand) and colleagues for demonstrating that, on icy footpaths in wintertime, people slip and fall less often if they wear socks on the outside of their shoes.

Peace Prize: Richard Stephens (UK) and colleagues for confirming the widely held belief that swearing relieves pain.

Public health Prize: Manuel Barbeito (US) and colleagues for determining by experiment that microbes cling to bearded scientists.

Economics Prize: Awarded to the executives and directors of Goldman Sachs, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch, and Magnetar for creating and promoting new ways to invest money — ways that maximize financial gain and minimize financial risk for the world economy, or for a portion thereof.

Chemistry Prize: Eric Adams (US) and colleagues for disproving the old belief that oil and water don't mix. The research, supported by BP, was published under the title: "Review of Deep Oil Spill Modeling Activity Supported by the Deep Spill JIP and Offshore Operator's Committee".

Management Prize (my favourite): Alessandro Pluchino (Italy) and colleagues for demonstrating mathematically that organisations would become more efficient if they promoted people at random.

Biology Prize: Libiao Zhang (China) and colleagues for scientifically documenting, er, fellatio in fruit bats.


  1. Not to mention that many of the most frivolous pieces of research have led accidentally to practical applications.

    I can't imagine that a new technique for whale-snot collecting *doesn't* can't be adapted for something with a more obvious point to it.

  2. Indeedy. Would imagine as well as the biological uses - the problem of getting whale samples really is quite a big one, in every way! - uses n the atmosphere, volcanoes, all sorts. Pretty handy tool I would imagine. I dread the health and safety reguation change that bans beards though. That would be a sad day!

  3. Physics Prize - They must have been speaking to runners! This is an age old method of running in snowy conditions. I am in fact a member of a Facebook group named after the very phenomenon - The Sock Squad http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=236811149598- a group of marathoners that ran for Hearing Dogs for Deaf People last year when we were training during the bad weather!!!!! I too love the Ig Nobels but I'm afraid I disagree with this award as it has been known for a long time! :S Though have probably done more stats than a bunch of runners! :)
    Like the blogs!