Charles Nevin: What next for science, the custard pi?


Distance providing perspective, the fresh mind uncluttered by received opinion and too much specialised information: this is what I bring to a large number of subjects, and never more so than with science, which, I observe, is getting funnier.

Did you see our report on the Ig Nobels, the prizes instituted to complement the authentic Nobels, and awarded to research that "makes people laugh and then makes them think"? I was taken by the work on why woodpeckers don't get headaches and how hiccups can be cured by a finger up the rectum.

I have studied the Igs for some years (they were introduced in 1991) and there is no doubt they are improving. Last year, for example, there was the method to calculate the defacatory pressure that builds up inside a penguin, and also an award to "neuticles", artificial testicles for dogs, both of which were rather more rib-tickling, to my mind, than previous winners, such as the proof that London cabbies have larger-than-average brains, which we all knew, and the study showing that the US suicide rate is proportional to the amount of country music on the radio.

What's happening is that scientific humour is getting more in tune with the rest of us. I have also, from time, made a survey of scientific jokes. Here are two old ones to show you what I mean: "Hydrogen atom: I've lost my electron! Hydrogen's friend: Are you sure? Hydrogen atom: Yeah, I'm positive!"; and, "What is a streptotrap? Something you catch streptomycin." Precisely.

Anecdotes involving scientists have also had their own unique flavour. Heisenberg, of the Uncertainty Principle, for instance, tripped over but resisted all offers of help with the cry: "Leave me alone! I am solving it!". My favourite involves the almost lighter side of Newton. Were you aware that he invented the cat flap? He did, so he wouldn't have to break off from experimenting. And when his cat had kittens, he cut smaller holes for them; which must have been a joke.

The approach is no longer as subtle. Television programmes such as MythBusters and Brainiac conduct all manner of experiments: walking on custard, testing whether a duck's quack echoes, using an automatic buttered toast projector to test Murphy's Law, and a regular spot discovering whether a mixture of chemicals goes fizz or bang. Explosions are popular. Also interesting is the latest book from the New Scientist stable, "Why Don't Penguins' Feet Freeze?".

Some will decry this as another example of dumbing-down; you might like to contemplate what scientists have achieved when they're involved in the opposite. I have only just recovered from the terrifying vision outlined by James Martin on the BBC's Start the Week: implanted links between brain and computer that will transform our consciousness in the flash of a download. And they do keep doing this sort of thing (latest: robot spy flies).

The usual response is that you can't put the genie back in the bottle. But couldn't we distract it rather more towards woodpeckers? There were other hopeful signs last week. In Tokyo, Mr Akira Haraguchi recited pi to 100,000 decimal places from memory, while in Ukraine, Mr Grigoriy Chausovsky unveiled his musical condom, which plays louder and faster or softer and slower according to circumstances. That's the way to do it.

Finally, I must correct the theory that all country music is maudlin. For every title such as "Here's A Quarter, Call Someone Who Cares", there is one like "I'm Back On My Feet Since I Got You Off My Hands". Thank you.

Camelot found on Morecambe Bay

Splendid to see that perceptive map of Britain devised by Ptolemy and included in the Cosmographia of 1477, the world's first printed atlas, up at auction this week.

Most striking, of course, is Scotland's position, to the right and down a bit. This is usually explained by Ptolemy's issues with longitude, but I think the Alexandrian sage had picked up on to the way that Scotland has always been drawn to the superior sophistications of the East, whether just over the Channel, or further across, where the affinity has led to Athens being dubbed the Edinburgh of the East.

Note, too, that Morecambe Bay gets proper prominence; near here Ptolemy placed Camulodunum, which, despite spurious rival claims, was Camelot and is Lancaster. The map also reveals how it must have been that the Armada got itself into such trouble.

* I have noticed an important new current affairs trend. The Silly Season has a new rival just recently. It used to be that party conferences marked a return to seriousness, but Tony, Gordon, Cherie and Boris were caught up in a pre-winter giddiness that also embraced, to take just a few examples, vicars making bad taste jokes about the Japanese, council workers picking conkers and fencing off areas at danger from falling pears, the Inland Revenue forcing money on a man in Somerset, and a grandmother being forced to provide a DNA example after refusing to give a ball back from her garden. Even Jack Straw became infected and said something interesting. And now Sark has abolished its feudal system. Where will it all end? We should call this, given its shape, the Pear Season. Still, at least the England lads didn't let us down.

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