Scientists need to turn microscope on themselves

Where is science taking us when the US government spends £30,000 studying how to open a sweet wrapper without making a noise in a cinema? asks Iain Murray

The troubled issue of whether people look at TV commercials, and, if so, with what degree of concentration and with what effect, is not helped in the least by the latest scientific inquiry into watched kettles.

In the fifth century BC, the Greek philosopher Zeno postulated the theory that movement cannot happen. He reached that conclusion by dividing the motion of a flying arrow ad infinitum. In each of those tiny moments, he argued, the arrow is at rest. The sum of an infinity of zeroes is zero – ergo movement cannot happen. And with that, Zeno turned his heel and went off for a well earned amphora of retsina, leaving his audience of puzzled yokels scratching their heads and wondering how a flying arrow gets from alpha to beta without benefit of movement.

Later scientists tried to refute Zeno but received a setback with quantum physics, which suggested that if a viewer makes repeatedly quick observations of a microscopic object undergoing change, the object can stop changing. So it was true that a watched kettle never boils. Which also explains how it is that the longer you look at car commercials, the less sense they make.

But now along come Professor Gershon Kurizki and Dr Abraham Kofman with the “anti-Zeno effect”. For reasons too complicated to explain – in other words, I don’t begin to understand them – they argue that not only does a watched kettle boil, it may do so faster as a result of being watched. Which explains why those car commercials race past without giving the viewer a chance to grasp what’s going on.

In all, it’s been a mixed few days for science. In France, a team of scientists attached skin thermometer probes to the scrotums of a number of drivers and discovered that the mean temperature of the said items rose over time. Voilà! Now we know why men who spend hours seated are prone to infertility. If widely publicised, the findings could be of benefit since they might discourage large numbers of young men from driving, leaving the roads free for women and older men, such as myself.

Meanwhile, at the University of Wales, Swansea, a new £500,000 laboratory aims to discover, among other sporting secrets, how to take a successful penalty in football. Dr Simon Jenkins, the university’s director of sports science, reveals a true academic grasp of the problem with the observation that “there is often a difference between what sports people try to do and what they actually do”. Anyone who has watched Devon Malcolm bowling will grimly attest to the truth of that.

On the other side of the Atlantic, at Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Dr Daniel Hong claims to have unravelled the mystery of how to create giant popcorn. It’s simple, really. When corn is heated, water inside the corn’s hard shell turns into steam and the fluffy inside bursts out to equal the pressure of the steam. Dr Hong has discovered that to give popcorn twice the volume you reduce the pressure in the cooker by two to the power of 1.3. He leaves it to philosophers to ponder the riddle of why anyone should want to make, let alone eat, gargantuan popcorn, and whether this development marks a significant stage in the understanding of ourselves.

Of greater significance is the total failure of scientists at Simon’s Rock College, Massachusetts, to discover how to open a sweet wrapper without making a noise. The researchers, who have spent so long investigating the problem that they have forgotten why it interested them in the first place, conclude that even the most careful removal of a wrapper fails to reduce the noise.

At a cost of £30,000 to the US government, the scientists recorded hundreds of sweet wrappers being opened in theatres and cinemas, and analysed the results on computer. They found that each step in the sequence produced an irregular series of bursts with unpredictable energies that varied by a factor of hundreds of thousands, no matter how slow the process.

Given the paucity of those findings and the meagre return for dollars invested, it is perhaps surprising that Dr Kramer hails the work as a “giant leap in understanding this scourge of audiences”.

This is a classic example of treating the symptom rather than the disease. Since Americans find it impossible to be “judgmental”, on the grounds that we are all victims and should feel each other’s pain, it is logical to start from the premise that the person unwrapping the sweet is the unhappy prisoner of a circumstance beyond his control. In a harsher age, a child scolded for noisily unwrapping a sweet in a cinema might respond petulantly: “The wrapper done it!” Today, Americans accept the truth of that.

Since it would be an affront to civil liberty as well as an unconstitutional infringement of the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness both to ban sweet eating in theatres and cinemas and to club to death those who persist, the answer must, as always, lie in counselling.

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