Submit content / news
For the printed magazine:
For the website or news columns:
Read the submission guidelines.
by Len Fisher
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £12.99, ISBN 0-297-60756-1
You have to be very dedicated to science to dunk and eat 140 biscuits with a stainless steel tube thrust up your nose, chewing for a specified count, while a colleague presses buttons to record and analyse the results. This is how people win Ig Nobel prizes (“for scientific achievements that cannot, or should not, be reproduced”), and indeed Len Fisher is an InGloreate. In fact, he drops a hint in this book that he was considered for a second prize.
Fisher, like the Igs, has a serious point, however. He believes that people are hungry to understand good science, and that everyday things are the way to help them connect to it. The study for which Fisher won his Ig had further ramifications than simply finding a way to dunk a biscuit so it wouldn’t collapse under its own weight. Unlocking the secrets of capillary action and stress cracks opens the way to studying not just biscuits but how trees grow and how solid materials fracture.
What is fascinating about Fisher’s book is how many everyday mysteries fill the world. Working out the best strategy for supermarket shopping, boiling an egg, or throwing a boomerang may not sound like the stuff of Real Science, but each problem leads to a more complex one. Except, it has to be said, for supermarket mathematics, though this chapter does give you the quick tip that the higher the proportion of prices ending in 99p on your register tape, the more relatively expensive your supermarket is likely to be. Even something as deceptively simple as catching a ball is immensely complex – if you try to do it via mathematical calculations, anyway. Spending many hours on such ordinary problems may seem odd. But the results are certainly entertaining.
Did you know you can restore the mint flavour of gum by taking a sip from a sweet drink? Try it.
(This review originally appeared in New Scientist)