x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Pocket guide to modern life: Analysing whale breath

Why the idea of analysing the breath of a whale using a well-placed helicopter remains a 'dazzling piece of scientific nonsense'.

As recently as not long ago I commented - in my customary far-seeing way - on the idiocy of some people's scientific research projects. And straight away, the sterling chaps behind the Ig Nobel Prizes issued their latest set of gongs. The Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded by the Improbable Research organisation (mission statement: "Research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK", no less).

Top of list is the whale breathalyser - a dazzling piece of science nonsense. The idea is that by simply flying a remote-controlled helicopter over a whale when it vents exhaust through its blowhole, you can collect a sample and determine whether it's drunk in change of an ocean. Genius.

Close on its heels (almost literally) is a New Zealand study to establish whether wearing socks outside your shoes can help to prevent slipping when it's snowy and so avoid a nasty fall. Apparently it does. Sixty-five per cent of those who took part in the experiment fared better on the ice with this method than they did wearing "unadulterated footwear". But a significant minority (no percentage is given) reported feelings of "indignity" - presumably because everyone was laughing at them. Nevertheless, the owners of Ski Dubai may want to test-drive this new safety device.

Among last year's Ig Nobel winners was the inventor of a brassiere that converts into two face masks in an emergency. The inventor claims that had the brassiere been available in 1986, fewer people in Chernobyl would have breathed in toxic dust from the exploded nuclear power station. It's called the EBra (a contraction of Emergency Brassiere). It's safety or bust with the EBra. (I'm not making this up, incidentally: see www.ebbra.com.)

The previous year an Ig Nobel Prize went to Toshiyuki Nakagaki for his groundbreaking discovery that the slime mould Physarum polycephalum can navigate a labyrinth on a petrie dish to find some food. Useful, or what?

And so it goes on. People have been investigating and inventing stupid things since time immemorial. But perhaps I'm being too harsh. Just possibly, we need these ridiculous investigations and innovations because they form one end of a scientific spectrum that at its other end has yielded things such as penicillin and the internal combustion engine.

In the current economic climate we may be reluctant to fund the whale breathalysers and their ilk, but perhaps we owe it to dubious researchers to LAUGH and then THINK.