Science with ignoble roots

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Science with ignoble roots

Why does the bread always fall on its buttered side when I drop it while eating? There is no need to deplore that Murphy’s law always makes you a victim.

British physicist Robert Matthews proved in 1995 that Murphy’s law should apply to everyone without exception. A slice of bread dropped from a dining table about one meter (3.3 feet) high has a high probability of falling on its buttered side because it turns only halfway in the air before it hits the ground. The height of the fall is not long enough for the bread to turn around completely. If it is dropped from a height of two meters, however, the probability of falling on the other side would be higher.

In recognition of the contribution made by the experiment, he was awarded with the Ig Nobel Prize in Physics in 1996. The Ig Nobel Prizes are a parody of the Nobel Prizes. The name is coined by combining the word ignoble, meaning common or undignified, with the surname of eponymous Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel. Perhaps it could be called the “bizarre and humorous Nobel Prizes.”

Past Ig Nobels have been awarded for: a chemical spray that can detect a husband’s extramarital affairs by making traces of semen on pants turn green (1999); a formula that can calculate the minimum number of shots you must take to get a group photo with no closed eyes (2006); and an experiment that showed that milk cows produced more milk when they were given names (2009).

There are many other prizewinning studies that have made people laugh. But they should not be taken lightly. Many of them were scientific research accomplishments that were published in scientific journals.

The prize, which was first organized by the scientific humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research in 1991, reminds us that the original nature of science is fun. Isaac Asimov, the American science fiction writer, said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny.’”

That was the case with microbiologist Alexander Fleming. When people asked him what he was doing, he used to say that he plays with microorganisms. He actually discovered penicillin, a miraculous antibiotic, while he was playing with germs.

The wishes of the Korean people to see Koreans win Nobel Prizes are growing strong gradually. But as Toshihide Maskawa, who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physics with his colleagues, put it, the Nobel Prize is awarded to a scientist who has fun studying something. It is not right to make Nobel Prizes the goal of academic research.

Therefore, I propose that Koreans should try to win an Ig Nobel prize first. If all of us indulge in the fun of studying science, I wonder whether one of us would someday win an actual Nobel.

The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.


By Shin Ye-ri

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