Ignobel Prize Announcement

Aug 2007

A theoretical study of the way skin, apple peel, and bedsheets wrinkle won Mahadevan “a share” of this year’s Ig Nobel Prize in Physics. He “celebrated” this with a ditty and an essay-let:

The Ignobility of Wrinkles

Wrinkle, wrinkle on my skin

How, I wonder, did you begin ?

By sagging, and swelling and shrinking too

While stretching and bending were mixed into a brew

Till ahah, a formula that fits on a pin

How infinitely familiar and yet how far from being understood our immediate environment is!   No one reminds us of this everyday more than children- and so I thank them all, and in particular, our own two, Kausalya and Aditya.

Wrinkle, wrinkle on my skin

Where, I wonder,  did I sin ?

Celebrated in art and drapery

Until ahah, pruned by  surgery

And then, just a has-been !

I am glad that this little piece of work has amused you, as it did us. I started looking at the problem of wrinkling a few years ago, noticing as you have, that these nuisances appear everywhere –  indeed you too will see more of them as you grow older, so you had better get used to them! I had obtained a simple mathematical formula for the size of wrinkles in various situations, and on talking with my former postdoctoral fellow, Enrique Cerda, found that he had independently obtained some of the same results. So we wrote a paper that is one of those cited generalizing these ideas. Later, with others, I explained how wrinkles appear in nanotubes, elephant trunks, and even the lithosphere, the skin of our planet – of course then we call them mountains.

This little problem serves, I think, to teach us how infinitely familiar and yet how far from being understood, our immediate environment is. No one reminds us of this everyday more than children – and so I thank them all, young and old!

Curiosity is what underlies science which is now even part of our culture as this part parody, part revue that is the Ignobel proves!  And like any other cultural activity, such as art and music, it can be and indeed it should be, unapologetically fun.  It is fun to figure out how things work, at any and all levels,  ignoring the artificial hierarchy on the supposed importance of the questions we ask – after all, Nature never imposes one!   A quote by the English lexicographer and man of letters, Samuel Johnson (1709-84) may be apt: “Vulgar and inactive minds confound familiarity with knowledge, and conceive themselves informed of the whole nature of things when they are shown their form or told their use.”

May we long continue the tradition of celebrating da mental fun in the mundane!

L. Mahadevan

Learn more.

Related Media

Related Publications

Wrinkling of a stretched elastic sheet, Cerda, E., K. Ravi-Chandar and L. Mahadevan,  Nature , 419, 579, 2002. [View PDF] [Download PDF]