Asian Scientist Magazine (Sep. 21, 2022) —Science is not just about groundbreaking discoveries. It is also about tackling the weird and wacky questions such as “What is the most efficient method of turning a doorknob?” and “How do ducklings swim in formation?” These and more are the winners of this year’s Ig Nobel Prize.
A satirical take on award ceremonies and prizes, the Ig Nobel Prize was established in 1991 by the academic humor journal Annals of Improbable Research to celebrate wonderfully weird and imaginative research done in the name of science.
“The Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements that make people laugh, then think,” as stated on the official website. “The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual; honor the imaginative; and spur people’s interest in science, medicine and technology.”
In previous years, the ceremonies were conducted in-person at Cambridge, Massachusetts. But this year’s ceremony was conducted entirely online on September 15 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Two groups from Asia have won this year’s prize for engineering and physics. Gen Matsuzaki, Kazuo Ohuchi, Masaru Uehara, Yoshiyuki Ueno, and Goro Imura from Japan won the engineering prize for trying to discover the most efficient way for people to use their fingers when turning a knob. While Frank Fish, Zhi-Ming Yuan, Minglu Chen, Laibing Jia, Chunyan Ji, and Atilla Incecik – two groups from the United States and China – jointly won the physics prize for trying to understand how ducklings manage to swim in formation.
Gen Matsuzaki and team from the Chiba Institute of Technology, Japan had published their research in 1991. It involved 32 college-age students who were tasked with holding doorknobs of differing widths and turning the doorknob clockwise. The team then looked at how the participants’ fingers were positioned on the doorknob. They discovered that the wider the doorknob, the more fingers are needed to grab hold of it, and the two most used fingers are the thumb and the pointer finger.
Although you may wonder that finding the most efficient method of turning a doorknob is a little silly, the research conducted by Matsuzaki and team does have an important use. As Japan’s aging population continues to grow, elderly people who have physical difficulties may have increasing trouble opening doorknobs and handles. Matsuzaki’s team champions the development of a good universal doorknob design. Manufacturing larger doorknobs that are easier to twist open can allow easier access to rooms for the elderly.
Now, coming to ducks–Mark Fish, a biologist from the US had initially wondered in 1994 how formation movement in animals, like the V-shaped formations birds create during their migration path, reduces energy expenditure in these animals. Fast forward to 2021, a research group from the Jiangsu University of Science and Technology, China decided to revisit Fish’s question. Minglu Chen and Chunyan Ji along with collaborators from the UK conducted their study by observing how Mallard ducklings swim in a single-file line behind their mother.
Twelve groups of seven one-day old ducklings imprinted on a decoy of a female Mallard duck were trained to swim round in a pool with recirculating water. The researchers measured the metabolic expenditure of the ducklings as they were swimming. The researchers discovered that the ducklings instinctively “ride on waves” created by their mother – or in this case by the decoy duck – thus reducing the amount of energy needed to paddle and swim to move forward.
Source: Ig Nobel Prize ; Image: Ajun Chuah