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Editorial: It’s funny how…

we all think that brains are pretty serious stuff. But it’s not all grey. After all, you do occasionally share a joke with your brain. And anyway, it’s the brain that makes you laugh by tracing improbable, exaggerated associations. Science can also be fun – this is what fuels the Ig Nobel awards, which are awarded every year at Harvard University.

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny
- Isaac Asimov

Organised by Annals of Improbable Research magazine, these awards are a spoof of the Nobel prizes and honour achievements which first make people laugh, and then make them think.

This year’s Ig Nobel in physics was awarded to a team of scientists who worked out the complex mathematics that control the shape and movement of a human ponytail. Another award was given to the authors of research into how brain scans can detect brain activity in dead fish if you use the right statistical tricks.

The team responsible for this research was led by Craig Bennett, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara – Bennett said the study should serve as a warning to neuroscientists to be careful when repeating scans.

Anita Eerland, of the Open University in the Netherlands, won the 2012 Ig Nobel in psychology when she discovered why leaning to the left makes the Eiffel Tower seem smaller.

Weird things. Wonderful things. Admittedly, things which you have, at one time or another, wondered about.

But for me, the biggest winner is the SpeechJammer, which was awarded the Ig Nobel in acoustics. Created by Kazutaka Kurihara and Koji Tsukada, the device disrupts someone’s speech by repeating their own voice at a delay of a few hundred milliseconds.

This annoying effect is enough to make speakers who are in love with their own voice sputter and hopefully stop.

Kurihara and Tsukada said they created the SpeechJammer to help public speakers realise that they are speaking too quickly or that their time is up.

But in reality, the device should be commercialised. Because we do need silence. We need the shush of waiting rooms and the hush of an empty underground station.

We need quiet offices rather than spaces where colleagues meet and greet and go on and on (and on) about how little Jessica refused to do her homework last night or why her teacher is just not good (notice how it’s always the teacher’s fault – all children are misunderstood geniuses).

We need quiet streets where people don’t feel obliged to greet their neighbour or friend with a five-second burst of the horn. And gasmen who don’t wake up the island at six in the morning – if we need gas, we’ll leave the empties on the doorstep and you just ring our bell. Is that too complicated?

And we need people to stop repeating things – because we did hear you the first time around. And if we didn’t, we’ll ask you to repeat or simply ignore you.

Of course, it’s probably just too loud to understand this. So bring on the SpeechJammer.

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