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Knot very funny

Some of Raymer and Smith’s knots — prepare yourself to laugh and then think. (Courtesy: UCSD).

By Hamish Johnston

Call me a killjoy, but I don’t find this year’s Ig Nobel prize in physics particularly amusing. It certainly doesn’t live up to to the award’s mandate of highlighting “Research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK”.

I didn’t laugh at Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith’s study of why knots form spontaneously in lengths of “agitated” string — which won them this year’s prize, and seems like a perfectly reasonable, even practical topic.

And all I could think was “I’m sure this sort of work has been done before”.

So I typed “knot” into our site search engine and sure enough this article came up. Now I’m no string theorist, but it looks like Jens Eggers at the University of Bristol published a similar study a year before Raymer and Smith. I tried to call Eggers to see if he was miffed about being passed over for the Ig Nobel, but there was no answer. I guess he was all tied up!

Looking back at physics Ig Nobels of yore, I think it’s safe to say that there have been much better. Who could forget the 1996 award, which went to Robert Matthews for explaining why toast usually falls butter-side down — or Len Fisher’s 1999 award for calculating the best way to dunk a biscuit in a cup of tea.

But my all-time favourite is the 2000 prize, which went to Andre Geim and Michael Berry for their explanation of why a live frog can be levitated in a very strong magnetic field.

Bring back the levitating frogs!

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  1. Mercury

    And the winners in the field of biology are “…Marie-Christine Cadiergues, Christel Joubert and Michel Franc of the National Veterinary College of Toulouse in France for discovering that fleas that live on a dog can jump higher than fleas that live on a cat.” Does that mean that Oxford or Einstein or Princess harbor inferior fleas? Are felines responsible for emitting a toxic substance that retards the spring capacity of fleas?

  2. Graham Rounce

    They have unfortunately attempted to make the Ignobel Prizes respectable, and in so doing have lost the amusement. I don’t remember all of the original so-called mandate, but it certainly didn’t have any weaselly stuff about making you think. One of the phrases I do remember was that they were intended to celebrate research “that could not, or should not, be reproduced”.
    They were funny then…


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