This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site you agree to our use of cookies. To find out more, see our Privacy and Cookies policy.
Skip to the content

Share this

Free weekly newswire

Sign up to receive all our latest news direct to your inbox.

Physics on film

100 Second Science Your scientific questions answered simply by specialists in less than 100 seconds.

Watch now

Bright Recruits

At all stages of your career – whether you're an undergraduate, graduate, researcher or industry professional – can help find the job for you.

Find your perfect job

Physics connect

Are you looking for a supplier? Physics Connect lists thousands of scientific companies, businesses, non-profit organizations, institutions and experts worldwide.

Start your search today


Lateral Thoughts: Playing favourites

(Courtesy: iStock/hidako)

(Courtesy: iStock/hidako)

By Margaret Harris

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts about “Lateral Thoughts”, Physics World’s long-running humour column. Click to read the first, second and third posts.

As the editor in charge of Lateral Thoughts – Physics World’s long-running column of humorous or otherwise offbeat essays on physics – I am sometimes* asked whether I have a favourite. It’s an interesting question, and back in 2014, when I was writing a series of posts for this blog about how Lateral Thoughts had changed over the (then) 25-year history of Physics World, I promised to answer it.

This, however, proved easier said than done. In the weeks that followed my foolish pledge, the Physics World inbox ( received a whole series of Lateral Thoughts essays that could have been my “favourite”. One of them, published in May 2014, was John Swanson’s discourse on the quantum nature of the 20:08 train from Bristol Parkway. Another, which appeared in June 2014, contained Chris Atkins’ gloriously straight-faced analysis of the physics of Poohsticks. A third, in July 2014, saw kung-fu expert Felix Flicker explore an unexpected connection between the mathematics of spinors and the art of escaping from an armlock. Then, in August 2014, John Evans pondered various physics-based ways of improving his running – such as refining his aerodynamic profile by developing a beer belly. (Evans, incidentally, went on to write a Lateral Thought on cycling in October 2015, and this month we published his essay on swimming. This means he’s now completed a lateral-thinking triathlon. Congratulations!)

We’ve received several more potential “favourites” since then (and the one we have planned for September is an absolute cracker), but the real problem wasn’t the number of candidates. It was that each of these essays appealed to me for highly personal reasons. As a rail commuter, I found Swanson’s Lateral Thought on the quantum 20:08 train almost painfully funny. However, if you’ve never puzzled over the properties of Advance fares while stranded in a “cold, wet, platform of a station in the middle of nowhere” (Swanson’s words), you may not have appreciated it. Similarly, I am an enthusiastic participant in both Poohsticks and martial arts – but if you aren’t, then Atkins’ and Flicker’s essays may not appeal. And while I’m not a runner, I’ve spent enough time on windy hilltops to appreciate Evans’ unconventional thoughts on aerodynamics – but again, you may beg to differ.

The bottom line is that there is no universally applicable way of picking a “best” or “favourite” Lateral Thought. They’re all different, and so are the people who read (and write) them. So instead, I decided to take a physics approach. Rather than get bogged down in details about specific “favourites”, I would attempt to elucidate a general principle for what makes a good Lateral Thought.

Initially, this also seemed rather difficult, but fortunately (and this, again, is a classic physics approach), I soon realized that someone had already solved the problem for me: my friend and fellow science humour enthusiast Marc Abrahams. Marc is the driving force behind the Ig Nobel Prizes, which (as many of you know) are awarded every year for research that “makes people laugh, then think”. The same principle applies to the Lateral Thoughts column, where the best essays mix humour with physics in a way that does full justice to both of those elements. In other words, you laugh – and then you think.

That said, the best ratio of science to humour is hard to pin down. We’ve published a few excellent Lateral Thoughts that were not funny at all, and if it’s done well, pure silliness goes a long way. I also know at least one Lateral Thought that seemed silly when it was first published, but which now looks remarkably prescient. Back in January 2007, Jason Palmer made the light-hearted suggestion that science needed a Journal of Close, But No Cigar where researchers could publish experiments that didn’t work. Fast-forward a few years and “null results” journals are a genuinely hot topic in scientific publishing. Now that was some lateral thinking!

So if there’s no exact formula for writing a great Lateral Thought, what’s a would-be lateral thinker to do? At this point, I think the best advice is to step away from theory and move into experiment. If you have an idea, start writing. If it seems to work, carry on. If you still like it once you’ve got 900–950 words, send it to us at If we like it too, we’ll publish it. Some things really are that simple.

Members of the Institute can read newly published Lateral Thoughts each month via the Physics World app, available from the App Store, Google Play and in a web browser edition. If you’re not a member, you can join the Institute as an IOPimember for just £15, €20 or $25 a year.

*Okay, it only happened once. But it was fun when it did!

This entry was posted in General and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.
View all posts by this author  | View this author's profile

One comment to Lateral Thoughts: Playing favourites

  1. M. Asghar

    ..”various physics-based ways of improving his running – such as refining his aerodynamic profile by developing a beer belly”. When you try to run with a beer belly sloshing up and down, there will not be much of aerodynamic profiling and you will be only hopping and down tortured by the merciless gravity!


  • Comments should be relevant to the article and not be used to promote your own work, products or services.
  • Please keep your comments brief (we recommend a maximum of 250 words).
  • We reserve the right to remove excessively long, inappropriate or offensive entries.

Show/hide formatting guidelines

Tag Description Example Output
<a> Hyperlink <a href="">google</a> google
<abbr> Abbreviation <abbr title="World Health Organisation" >WHO</abbr> WHO
<acronym> Acronym <acronym title="as soon as possible">ASAP</acronym> ASAP
<b> Bold <b>Some text</b> Some text
<blockquote> Quoted from another source <blockquote cite="">IOP</blockquote>
<cite> Cite <cite>Diagram 1</cite> Diagram 1
<del> Deleted text From this line<del datetime="2012-12-17"> this text was deleted</del> From this line this text was deleted
<em> Emphasized text In this line<em> this text was emphasised</em> In this line this text was emphasised
<i> Italic <i>Some text</i> Some text
<q> Quotation WWF goal is to build a future <q cite="">
where people live in harmony with nature and animals</q>
WWF goal is to build a future
where people live in harmony with nature and animals
<strike> Strike text <strike>Some text</strike> Some text
<strong> Stronger emphasis of text <strong>Some text</strong> Some text