Can people swim faster in water or syrup? What goes on in a locust’s brain when it’s watching Star Wars? Does wearing socks on the outside of your shoes make you less liable to slip on ice? And what, exactly, is the optimal way to dunk a biscuit?
Despite what you may be thinking, these are not the ramblings of children or intoxicated adults. These are all questions which have been posed – and answered – by leading world scientists. That’s right, this week saw the announcement of the ultimate ‘Mad Scientist’ award winners, or Ig Nobel prizes, a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the fun side of science.
Though much of the research sounds completely nutty, (just why does uncooked spaghetti break into several pieces when it is bent? Do cows with names give more milk than cows that are nameless?) much of the Ig prizes celebrate research that tackles real-world problems, and often gets published in higly-esteemed scholarly journals. Last year’s winners included John Perry’s ‘Theory of Structured Procrastination’ (Ig Nobel for Literature) and a team of Japanese scientists claimed the Chemistry prize for the ‘Wasabi Alarm’, by determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi required in order to awaken sleeping people in the event of an emergency.
And this year’s set of winners proved to suitably wacky. The winners of the Fluid Dynamics prize explained why our coffee sloshes out of the cup when walking (a combination of a person’s walking speed, their mental focus and, surprisingly enough, noise), and the Neuroscience Ig went to a team of Californian scientists who proved that using complicated instruments and simple statistics, meaningful brain activity can be seen anywhere — even in a dead salmon.
One of the stand-out highlights of the night was a demonstration of the ‘SpeechJammer,’ which won the Ig for Acoustics. This handy little device is useful in silencing a chatterbox, disrupting a person’s speech by making them hear their own spoken words at a very slight delay.
The developers of this contraption are Japanese researchers Kazutaka Kurihara and Koji Tsukada from the Japanese National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, who hope the SpeechJammer will be useful in addressing the extremely important issue of overly talkative people (we all know them!)
The Japanese scientists explained during their acceptance speech that the system is based on the concept of delayed audio feedback, whereby the human brain becomes psychologically ‘jammed’ when it hears its own, artificially delayed voice. The SpeechJammer recreates this psychological phenomenon by playing the speaker’s voice back to them with a delay of a few hundred milliseconds. Kurihara suggested that the contraption, when used positively and productively, could be used in politics or business, in order to deter people hogging the limelight and allow everyone to have their turn to speak in the boardroom. “One scenario is that you can use this in a meeting room where chairs have buttons to stop excessive speaking,” said Kurihara, adding the device could make such meetings more “fair.”
Have a look at the full list of winners here!
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