Noble Noble

Once again, thank you for all your efforts this half term. Over the past few weeks, we have recognised and acknowledged that autumn is on its way. This week we can be confident in saying that autumn is here right now! We’ve got a couple of weeks to go until the half term break, which will be well earned when it does arrive. Until then, stay consistent, stay committed and stay connected.

As we are at this point in the term maybe a little less from me might be appropriate. I note that the Nobel prizes have been given this week. Alfred Nobel instigated these prices with significant financial reward, but more importantly, the accolade itself being the reward itself.  The Nobel Prizes are five separate prizes that, according to Alfred Nobel’s will of 1895, are awarded to “those who, during the preceding year, have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.”  As you might know, Alfred Nobel was a Swedish chemist, engineer, and industrialist, most famously known for the invention of dynamite.  Nobel Prizes are awarded in the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature and Peace.  To all the Nobel Prize winners last week, from a distance, I offer my congratulations. They are some of the most inspiring women and men on the planet right now.

You may not have seen this but it does remind me of the Ig Nobel prizes. This year’s entries are as good as ever and are close to genius. They are a celebration of science, life and the life sciences. This year is winners include (from the official citations):

 This year’s Ig Nobel Prize for biology went to Susanne Schötz, Robert Eklund, and Joost van de Weijer for analysing the modes of cat-human communication. For about 10 years, yes, 10 years, these exceedingly dedicated researchers recorded and analysed different sounds produced by cats, such as purring, chirping, chattering, trilling, tweedling, murmuring, meowing, moaning, squeaking, hissing, yowling, howling, growling, and, believe it or not, the list goes on. They even tested humans to see how they differentiate between sad meowing (when cats go to the vet) and happy meowing (when cats are about to be fed) simply by listening to 12 recordings of meowing. And yes! Cat lovers were right all along! You can indeed understand your cat… maybe not perfectly, but it turns out that humans, especially those that have some experience in owning a cat, can differentiate between sad and happy types of meowing (Schötz et al., 2011, 2012, 2014).

The Ig Nobel Prize 2021 for chemistry was awarded for the chemical analysis of the air in a movie theatre for the odours produced by the audience, and whether this can be used to classify a movie in the age rating system. At present, the age rating that is bestowed by a rating committee is supported by algorithms that take into account the graphic content of the movie (such as sex scenes, violence, and so on), as well as the vocabulary used. Thus far, the age rating was never determined based on people’s reaction to the movie. This is where Stönner and his colleagues come in. They analysed the movie theatre air for more than 60 volatile organic compounds known to be exhaled by people and hypothesised that the concentration of some compounds will increase if a movie provokes human emotions. The researchers found that the concentration of isoprene was a good predictor to rate a movie according to the levels of violence, sex, language, etc. across different movie genres (Stönner et al., 2018). Just wow!

The Ig Nobel Prize 2021 for peace was awarded to Ethan Beseris, Steven Naleway and David Carrier for testing the hypothesis of whether males evolved beards to provide protection against punches by absorbing and dispersing the energy. After all, intra-species fights have always been a part of life and therefore evolution, and the lower jaw (mandible) is often fractured in hand-to-hand fights. The research team tested this hypothesis by measuring the impact force and energy absorbed by a fibre epoxy composite, representing the bone, covered with sheep skin both with and without hair. The punch was provided by dropping a weight on the constructs. Needless to say, bearded constructs absorbed about 30% more energy than the constructs without beards (Beseris et al., 2020). So, if you like to fight, better grow a beard!

The Ig Nobel Prize 2021 for physics and the prize for kinetics went to research projects with a very similar topic. The prize for physics was awarded to research dedicated to the question of why pedestrians don’t always collide with each other in large crowds. The Ig Nobel Prize 2021 for kinetics went to the investigation of why pedestrians do sometimes collide with each other in crowds. The simple answer to the first question is that people can anticipate other peoples’ movement. The answer to the second question is that people are distracted, most often by their cell-phones, and cannot anticipate other people’s movement! To make things even worse, the distracted pedestrians actually impair the ability of others to anticipate the crowd’s movement. Interestingly, the kinetics prize winning research shows that in high density, bi-directional crowds, people spontaneously form lanes for each direction, probably due to individual’s anticipation of movements (Corbetta et al., 2018; Murakami et al., 2021).

‘Everything is theoretically impossible, until it is done.’ Robert A. Heinlein

Science is special. Scientists are special!