Monthly Archives: February 2004

The IgNobel Prizes


In today’s VERITAS we consider a very serious issue: the importance of fun in Science. We seem to think that Science is a very serious affair and is done by serious people who do not have a sense of humour. Lets examine these thoughts a little deeper. What is the origin of Science? Is it not an effort that has its foundations in curiosity. And who is most associated with curiosity? A child!

So Science arises from a childlike curiosity. So why should we consider Science to be a dull boring thing. Science is the deepest fun that a person can have and it recreates the fun of discovery that we all feel when we were little.

      Now give me one good reason why a person who is curious about electrons more of a scientist than a person who experiments and wonders about how long a biscuit can be dipped in tea so that it absorbs the maximum tea but does not break!!! In my opinion both are scientists as long as their aim is to honestly satisfy their OWN curiosity!

      However this world is crazy! It tends to recognize people who are curious about the electron and laugh at people who worry about biscuits and tea etc.

      The Ignobel prizes are an attempt to reward people who try and do crazy science that other people try to stay away from.

Each year 10 IgNobel prizes are awarded in different fields.

      Eor example, Len Fisher got the Ignobel prize in Physics for finding a optimal way to dip biscuits in tea. Harold Hillman  got a prize for a report on how much pain different methods of execution might cause on subjects.

      This prize does not mean that the winners do wrong research. The research that wins this prize must be based on sound scientific principles.

      Arnd Leike of the University of Munich showed mathematically that beer froth obeys the law of mathematical decay and won the Physics prize in 2002. This work was mathematicallly sound.


      The British Standards Institute got the 1999 Literature prize for its 6 page specification( BS-6008) of the proper way to make a cup of tea.

      Most papers written by these scientists are published in real research journals. For example the 2003 prize for medicine went to a research article published in the proceedings of the royal academy of sciences. This paper showed that the size of some areas in the brain of London taxi drivers is larger than normal. This is because the areas needed for navigation through the tricky roads in london were more developed.


      Some people who win these prizes are very respected scientists. For example Michael Berry the discoverer of the Berry Phase in Physics is a highly regarded Physicist and he won the Ignobel for his experiments on the magnetic levitation of non magnetic things( frogs, pizzas, sumo wrestlers).

      These prizes are presented at a function at Harvard University and sponsored by the journal “Annals of Improbable research”. The aim is to award science that first makes you laugh and then makes you think.

      Friends, there is so much around us that we can discover. Lets not be bogged down by complicated books and complex equations. These books and equations are mere tools. But the thing that we want to discover is the beautiful and wonderful nature. When we decide to discover these tools will become easy. The important thing is to go back and answer the questions that interest us and not bother about what interests others.


“When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,

and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with

much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”   –Walt Whitman








  Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:                 

  Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:                 

  Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,                          

  Correct old time and regulate the Sun;                             



Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel was born in Germany in 1738. His father was a military musician. Wilhelm Herschel joined the military band at an early age. However he realized that his health was too delicate for the military and he left the band and Germany at the age of 19 and went to England.

        In England Herschel earned his living as a musician. He taught music, he performed music, he composed tunes for the military. Herschel was living a happy and peaceful life. He even had his sister and brother migrate from Germany to join him in England. He spent his free time reading languages, philosophy and mathematics.

 At the age of thirty-file Herschel read a book on Astronomy and that changed his life. He became passionately interested in Astronomy. It wasnt quickly became his first love. He would spend the money that he earned from his music career to Astronomy. He bought books, instruments and lenses. He got his sister and brother interested in Astronomy as well.

Together they started observing the sky at night. They started off by renting small telescopes. But these did not satisfy Herschel. He wanted to see more! But he lacked the money to buy bigger telescopes or get them made. Herschel decided to make his own telescopes. He read lots of books on optics to understand how. He got raw materials.So the Herschel family started making their own telescopes. At night the brothers and sister would grind lenses for a bigger telescope. They soon had a telescope with a focal length of 5.5 feet. Between 1779 and 1781 Herschel had measured the heights of about a hundred moon mountains. These were his first papers in Astronomy and were presented by someone else at the Royal Society.

       The Herschel family worked hard to create larger and bigger telescopes. They soon had a 20 foot reflecting telescope and then a 40 foot reflecting telescope.

        In 1781 Herschel was a musician with an interest in Astronomy. So in a sense he was a musician who had a crazy hobby. He was unknown amongst Astronomers. One night March 13 1781 was to change all this. On this day Herschel discovered an unidentified object placed in the constellation on Gemini. Herschel thought that he had discovered a comet.

He was WRONG! He had discovered something much much bigger. He had discovered a new planet!!!!! The planets Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were known to the ancient Romans and Greeks and maybe even before that time. So this new planet was the first planet to be found for more than 2000 years!!!!!! This new planet was named Uranus.

      Herschel became famous. The King of England recognized him and  was awarded an annual salary by the King. So now herschel could leave  his practical job and concentrate fully on Astronomy. But Astronomy is  a costly hobby and the King’s salary was too little. To make more money the Herschels started selling telescopes. The telescopes were exported as far as China.

        Fame and money did not distract the Herschel family from their real aim: to study the stars. William Herschel would sit on a ladder observing his telescope for stars. Any observations made were shouted and William’s sister Caroline would record them on a notebook. Sometime in winters the ink in Caroline’s pen would freeze. But the Herschel family did not stop observing.

        William Herschel’s son John also took an interest in Astronomy and would join his father in observing the night sky. William discovered clouds of stars (nebulae). He started cataloging these clouds. The Herschels discovered 4650 nebulae and created a huge catalogue of these.

      Herschel’s observations and discoveries are numerous. He observed sunspots and confirmed the gaseous nature of the sun. He discovered not only the planet Uranus, but two of its moons, and also two of Jupiter’s moons. His principal works were on stars. Two discoveries of primary importance is the movement of the solar system through space and the evidence that binary stars move around a common center of gravity. He discovered nearly 1,000 double stars.

      William Herschel died in 1822.

      Friends, we place too much importance on things like IQ, degrees, working in large organizations etc. But all these are just froth and bubble. The real thing that creates great work is Love!

Love is the necessary and sufficient condition for all great things.


      All thoughts , all passions, all delights

      whatever stirs this mortal frame

      are but ministers of love

      that feed his sacred flame!





  Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides:                  

  Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides:                 

  Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,                          

  Correct old time and regulate the Sun;