Giving it socks


2010 brought with it some weird and wonderful research, including whether socks over shoes stop you slipping on ice, writes CLAIRE O'CONNELL

THE YEAR 2010 will be remembered for many things, not all of them wonderful. In the future, that particular edition of Reeling in the Yearswill probably have us throwing things at the television – or whatever gizmo we are watching it on by then.

But while volcanic ash was grounding flights and filling ferries, and national economies were reeling and rallying, there were a few health stories to distract us and either lighten the mood or make us stop and think.

Making us laugh and then think is the aim of the annual Ig Nobel prizes, always a rich hunting ground for the more bizarre stories. This year was no exception, with several odd-sounding studies in the winners’ enclosure, including the effects of rollercoaster rides on asthma, swearing as a response to pain, and the potential for men working in microbiological labs to harbour hazards in their beards.

The winner of the physics title was a study in New Zealand to see whether wearing your socks over your shoes could improve traction on icy footpaths, and help prevent falls.

The study of 30 pedestrians walking downhill on icy paths took place in Dunedin, a town on South Island that quite fancies itself as being Scottish and has the hills and winter chills to stake that claim.

“In winter, damp weather followed by freezing conditions can transform a quick journey to work into a lengthy and perilous expedition,” wrote the researchers in the 2009 New Zealand Medial Journal paper that scooped them the Ig Nobel prize earlier this year.

The local council in Dunedin had advised residents to wear socks over shoes in icy weather to increase grip. But the scientists were perplexed by the lack of evidence for the practice’s effectiveness and sought “to remedy this surprising gap in falls prevention research” with a randomised controlled trial.

For practical – and possibly legal – reasons the study decided not to use Baldwin Street, billed as the world’s steepest. Instead they opted for commonly used routes that they knew from painful experience could be slippery in icy conditions.

Passing pedestrians were recruited and asked to either brave the sloping path in their regular footwear or else don a pair of socks in Superman “underwear as outerwear” style over their shoes.

“The acrylic-blend work socks [size 11–14] were purchased in bulk from a budget department store using independent research funds,” state the University of Otago researchers, soberly.

Participants were timed and observed as they walked downhill – any slipping, falling, clinging to stationary objects or crawling were to be recorded by outcome assessors – and the pedestrians were also asked to rate the experience themselves.

So what did they find? Yes, the sock-over-shoe trick does seem to improve the going in icy conditions, but the socks need to be properly fitted to avoid tripping.

And to reassure against any improper links, the authors stated there were no known competing interests to declare: “In particular, none of the authors has financial links with sock manufacturers and none of us own sheep.”

The tongue-in-cheek approach was also evident in another health story – this time a campaign against malaria.

Of course the initiative acknowledged that malaria is no laughing matter, but they figured that, under the banner of “malarity”, the hilarity could prompt donations to Malaria No More, a charity that’s looking to end deaths from the disease in Africa by 2015.

Well-known comedians and actors lined up to list the dreams they had as children of what they wanted to be when they grew up – ranging from astronaut to stuntman to a fire engine (yes, an actual fire engine).

In another clip they talked about what kids should be allowed to do, whether it’s peeing in a public pool or playing jazz trumpets.

But the hard-hitting follow-up was that over 2,000 children die from malaria per day in Africa and that donations can help distribute bed nets, educate people and make anti-malarial drugs more available.

While mosquitoes like to bite our exposed skin, in years to come we may be tapping such parts of our body to get information. A project being cooked up by Microsoft Research and Carnegie Mellon University has been looking at turning our largest organ into a computer interface.

“Skinput” works by projecting images on to the skin and using acoustic sensors to pick up the vibrations through skin and bone as we tap on parts of the images. That information in turn allows the user to communicate with a device.

“It’s kind of crazy to think we could summon interfaces onto our bodies, but it turns out to make a lot of sense,” says inventor Chris Harrison. “Our skin is always with us, and makes the ultimate interactive touch surface.”

The prototype, unveiled earlier this year, worked as an armband attached to the upper arm that could project images of buttons onto the skin and then sense the responses – but the researchers aim to develop a more wristwatch-sized gadget.

However there’s still a way to go – factors such as fleshiness seemed to affect the technology’s ability to pick up signals, and jogging with it on created noise and degraded the signal.

Maybe some day, though, we’ll be watching TV programmes about 2010 on our forearms and chuckling at how wondrous the technology all seemed back then.