Things that make you laugh, but then think

Everyone has heard of the Nobel prize. Given annually to celebrate advances made across several fields, these prizes are the ultimate prestige for academic, cultural and scientific achievement. But if discovery can be ranked, and prizes awarded for the best and most significant work, then it follows that there is research going on at the other end of the spectrum. Enter the Ig Nobel Prize.

These prizes are awarded to people who conduct research that first might make you laugh, but then makes you think. The winners receive their awards from actual Nobel prize winners in a ceremony at Harvard University, and in September this year’s winners were announced and applauded for their work.

Some favourites of this year’s winners include:

  • Physics prize for a delightful piece of research into the physical state of cats – are they technically a liquid? (The answer being both yes and no)
  • Peace prize for the discovery that playing the didgeridoo on a regular basis is an effective treatment for snoring.
  • Medicine prize for the use of highly advanced brain scanning technology to measure how much a person is disgusted by cheese.

Alone these may not seem like serious research, more like what happens when there is extra funding and researchers get bored (like last year’s economics prize for assessing the personalities of rocks from a sales and marketing perspective), but what these researchers are showing is an ability to think outside of the box. Using technology in new ways, coming at questions from a different angle, using creativity to their advantage, they are reinventing the way science is viewed.

For example, having read the study on the liquid state of cats led to a better understanding of fluid dynamics. Researching the effect of playing the didgeridoo on snoring gets you thinking about breathing patterns and how the human airways work. Using a piece of technology for a slightly different purpose may lead to exciting new ways to utilise its capabilities.  Even assessing the personalities of rocks (using a standard scale often used in research) uncovered potential bias in a commonly used tool.

Taking what is inside the box (current knowledge) and either combining it with something new, or twisting it in a different direction is the cornerstone of good creative. So, if you want to have a laugh followed by a deeper think, visit www.improbable.com to see what researchers are doing to solve problems great and small, in the most creative of ways.

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