This is one of the arts in life: the optimal way to turn the handle. Now, research into this neglected question has been recognized with one of science’s most coveted awards: the Nobel Prize.

After a series of laboratory tests, a team of Japanese industrial designers came to the basic conclusion that the larger the handle, the more fingers are required to turn it.

The team is one of 10 to be honored at this year’s Nobel Prize ceremony for research that “first makes you laugh, then makes you think” – not to be confused with the weightier Nobel prizes to be awarded in Scandinavia next month.

Other awards at Thursday night’s virtual ceremony include a physics prize for showing why ducklings line up and an economics prize for mathematically explaining why success tends to go to the luckiest, not the most talented. An international collaboration won a peace prize for developing an algorithm that helps gossipers decide when to tell the truth and when to lie.

The winners received three-dimensional paper gears with images of human teeth and a £10 trillion note from Zimbabwe. Prizes were distributed to eight bona fide Nobel laureates, including the British biochemist Sir Richard Roberts.

Professor Gen Matsuzaki, an industrial design researcher at the Chiba Institute of Technology in Japan, whose understanding of “rotary control of column knobs” won an engineering prize, said he was recognized for “focusing attention on a problem that no one cares about”.

After analyzing video footage of 32 volunteers turning 47 pens of different sizes, the researchers concluded that turning a pen wider than 1 cm typically requires three fingers, with a transition to four and five fingers occurring when the pen is larger than 2.5 cm and 5 cm. diameter. “We cannot rotate the small-diameter columnar control element with all five fingers,” the team concluded in the Bulletin of the Japan Society for Design Science.

The work could inspire the design of appropriately shaped faucets or volume knobs, Matsuzaki suggested, but he added, “Unfortunately, I can’t know.” After the publication of the paper in 1999, his academic focus shifted to bag handles and umbrella handles.

The Physics Prize went to Professor Frank Fish and his colleagues at West Chester University, Pennsylvania, for solving the question of why ducklings swim in a row. “It’s something I’ve dreamed of, because I’ll never get a Nobel Prize,” Fish said.

He began pondering the question after seeing a mallard and her offspring swimming along a river that runs through Michigan State University, where Fish was completing his doctorate in muskrat hydrodynamics. Fish had a group of ducklings follow a mechanical mother duck in a large tank of water and found that the linear formation saved energy – the last duckling in line benefited the most.

The literature prize went to a team that analyzed what makes legal documents so impenetrable. “We all had an intuition that the legal language was thick, 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 the fault lies not in complex concepts but in poor writing. “One of the worst trends is center embedding, where you take two sentences and instead of keeping them separate, you put one inside the other,” Mollica said.

“It’s inevitable that someone can [make contracts incomprehensible] for bad faith reasons, but we did not check such motives,” he added.

Other scientific research to be awarded included a study of how constipation affects the mating prospects of scorpions and a review 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 hop enemas containing alcohol or hallucinogenic herbs.

Mark Abrahams, editor of the journal Annals of Improbable Research and founder of the prize, said: “If you didn’t win the Nobel Prize today – and especially if you did – good luck next year.”

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