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The optimal way to turn a knob. Now an investigation into this neglected question has been

The optimal way to turn a knob. Now an investigation into this neglected question has been recognized with one of science’s most coveted accolades:


After a series of lab-based trials, a team of Japanese industrial designers arrived at the central conclusion that the bigger the knob, the more fingers required to turn it.


The team is one of 10 to be recognised at this year’s Ig Nobel awards for research that “first makes you laugh, then makes you think” – not to be confused with the more heavyweight Nobel prize awards, coming up in Scandinavia next month.

Other awards at the virtual ceremony on Thursday evening include the physics prize for showing why ducklings swim in a line formation, and the economics prize for explaining, mathematically, why success most often goes not to the most talented people, but instead to the luckiest. An international collaboration won the peace prize for devising an algorithm to help gossipers decide when to tell the truth and when to lie.

The winners were presented with a three-dimensional paper gear featuring images of human teeth and a 10tn dollar bill from Zimbabwe, with eight bona fide Nobel laureates, including the British biochemist Sir Richard Roberts, on hand to distribute the prizes.

Prof Gen Matsuzaki, an industrial design researcher at the Chiba Institute of Technology in Japan whose insights on the “rotary control of columnar knobs” won the engineering prize, said he had been recognised for “focusing on a problem that no one cares about”.

After analysing video footage of 32 volunteers turning 47 knobs of assorted sizes, the researchers deduced that to turn a knob wider than 1cm, three fingers are normally required, with a shift to four and five fingers occurring when a knob exceeds 2.5cm and 5cm in diameter. “We cannot turn а columnar control of small diameter with all five fingers,” the team concluded in the Bulletin of Japanese Society for the Science of Design.

The work may have inspired the design of appropriately shaped faucets or volume control knobs, Matsuzaki speculated, but he added: “Unfortunately I have no way of knowing.” Since publishing the work in 1999, his academic focus has shifted to bag handles and umbrella grips.

The physics prize went to Prof Frank Fish and colleagues at West Chester University, Pennsylvania, for tackling the question of why ducklings swim in a line formation. “It is something that I have dreamed of as I would never win the Nobel prize,” Fish said.

He began to ponder the question after watching a mother duck and her offspring swimming along a river that runs through Michigan State University, where Fish was completing his doctorate on the hydrodynamics of muskrats. Fish got a group of ducklings to follow a mechanical mother duck in a large tank of water and found that the linear formation saves energy – with the last duckling in the line benefiting most.

The literature prize went to a team who analysed what makes legal documents so impenetrable. “We all had this intuition that legal language is dense, but we really need to know empirically: how bad is it?” said Francis Mollica, who worked on the study at the University of Edinburgh. The paper concluded that poor writing, not complicated concepts, is to blame. “One of the worst tendencies is centre embedding, where you take two sentences and, instead of keeping them separate, you put one inside of the other,” Mollica said.

“It’s inevitable that someone could [make contracts incomprehensible] for bad faith reasons, but we didn’t test those kinds of motives,” he added.

Other boundary-pushing research to be rewarded included a study on how constipation affects the mating prospects of scorpions and a survey of classic Maya pottery, which suggested that “contrary to the traditional view that the ancient Maya were a contemplative people” they may have indulged in intoxicating enemas containing alcohol or hallucinogenic herbs.

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