It’s that time of year – The Annals of Improbable Research website has announced the winners of the 2021 Ig Nobel Awards to widespread fascination and titillation. The fine folks at AIR’s purpose is to “make people laugh and then think.” Ours is basically to make you think and have fun, so it seems like a good time for a shout out.
While we’ll leave you to find out about the ins and outs of upside-down rhinoceroses and cockroach control on submarines, if we’re forcing the issue, perhaps the awards in physics and kinetics intrigue bean spillers like us most this year. The physics prize winners examined why pedestrians in crowds don’t bump into each other, and the kinetics team looked at why they do. Distractions like smartphones played a predictable role, and a general sense of consideration would seem clear enough, though there was no mention of whether they controlled for utility poles jumping out of nowhere. Individual starlings in a mass or fish in schools have evolved similar innate rules to keep the group fluid. For our own billiard-ball collisions of beans and bubbles, we’ve got algorithms for that. Social forces like the ones these folks studied, though, introduce a whole other dynamic.
From our experience navigating some of the most crowded train stations and street crossings in the world, we’ve seen that when everyone has the right sensibility, things do go smoothly. It just happens to be social with humans, not innate. And while it may seem obvious that it pays to watch where you’re going, face orientation is just as important as a cue to others to show them where you’re going. Your mom was right. Looking one way and walking another is a leading cause of sudden familiarity with strangers. Use your blinkers.
Who knows what the physics bunch and the kinetics group crossing paths may kickstart? We may see applications in architecture, decision-making, robotics… or maybe just a new way to sling beans to spell. The Ig Nobel Awards are a highlight to be sure, but the AIR is active year-round, so walk wild and take the opportunity to cross-fertilize your mind every step of the trek.