Press Review


Why is it impossible to break a piece of spaghetti into two equal parts? Why is it when we smash an adversary’s skull with an empty bottle of beer it does just as much damage as a full bottle? Why don’t woodpeckers ever get migraines despite the fact that about 12,000 times a day, at a rate of 20 pecks a second they propel their beaks into a tree trunk at a speed of 20 kilometers an hour?

These kinds of questions seem laughable, especially when we learn that serious researchers are studying them in their labs and publish their results in austere scientific reviews. Does a pressing need to urinate at night diminish the quality of our decision-making? Why does the shower curtain have the annoying habit of sticking to our skin? Does the spontaneous eruption of curses that follow hitting one’s thumb with a hammer help ease the pain?

“These questions provoke laughter but also give us a lot to think about”, says a winner of the Ig Nobel (pronounced in ignoble in English) prize. For years this anti-Nobel is handed out in the venerable Harvard University. It celebrates scientific research that on the surface seems wacky… but that is in fact anything but. When we bend spaghetti (a dry inhomogeneous paste, riddled with defects) until it breaks, it snaps at the weakest point which isn’t necessarily the center.

And even if it did, nothing would change because a shockwave travels the whole length of the spaghetti instantly provoking several breaks, so there’s no chance of ending up with half a piece of spaghetti intact. In point of fact this research helped improve poles used by pole-vaulters and the control bars in nuclear power plants. Just as observing the woodpecker resulted in serious progress in the quality of motorcycle helmets. Now, to protect the brain, a great potion of the impact from frontal shocks is shunted to the shoulders. Conclusion: even when it gets a laugh, science is still very useful.

Fabien Gruhier

  • /