Created as a tongue-in-cheek riposte to the “World’s Largest Ball of String” tourist trap, the “World’s Smallest Ball of String” was made by nanoscale researchers at the Commonwealth Institute of Technology using an extremely fine thread of synthetic spider silk spun on a custom loom (also nanoscale) into thread before being balled up. A similarly nanoscale cat was prepared, but largely ignored.

The tiny string ball received coverage from many mainstream media outlets, and many high-resolution pictures were distributed to the media. The team was even nominated for an Ig Nobel Prize, though they ultimately lost to a team that had developed oral contraceptives for domestic rabbits.

Capitalizing on the easy availability of photos and information (as an NSF grantee, all information about the research was open-access), an enterprising huckster opened a roadside attraction claiming to have the world’s smallest ball on display. Using photos and information about the real ball, the proprietors charged $5 a head to look through an “electron microscope” at the ball, while really just rigging a projector to an ordinary magnifier. Local government officials estimate that the con artists made close to half a million dollars before their scheme was blown by a statement from the original team, clarifying that the original ball had been unwound and destroyed immediately after it had been photographed.

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