Fractal Hamentaschen and Other Mathematical Baking

March 5th, 2015

Among the more unusual arenas in which to construct fractals—objects with self-similar (or at least approximately self-similar) features on all scales—is in the kitchen.

For example, one might consider creating a fractal generalization of a hamentasch, a traditional Jewish pastry that consists of dough in the shape of a triangle along with a filling in the center.

A Sierpinski hamentasch.

A Sierpinski hamentasch. Challenge: Can you measure the fractal dimension of this hamentasch?


A few years ago, a recipe was published on a Seattle Local Food blog for making Sierpinski Hamentaschen, which provided a solution to the ages-old problem of how to create a hamentaschen without having a dough:filling ratio that is too high. This was especially a problem at the ‘eat’ stage of the algorithm.

It turns out that the solution is surprisingly simple: take advantage of
mathematical knowledge about the Sierpinski triangle and create fractal hamentaschen.

Thankfully, mathematical baking is an active area. My own institution,
University of Oxford, even held a mathematical bake-off last fall.

(Thanks to investigator Karen Daniels for alerting us to the Sierpinski

Lincoln Carr joins Luxuriant Former Hair Club (LFHCfS)

March 5th, 2015

Lincoln Carr has joined the Luxuriant Former Hair Club for Scientists (LFHCfS). He says:

In graduate school I had luxuriant flowing hair.  I foolishly accepted a post-doc in Paris where crazed mobs of Frenchmen chased me down and shaved me bald, shrieking, “Vive la France!  Tu seras chauve, chien Américain!”  While there, I also had a very bald baby.  My hair has never grown back.

Lincoln D. Carr, Ph.D., LFHCfS
Professor, Humboldt Fellow, Honors Faculty Fellow
Department of Physics
Colorado School of Mines
Golden, Colorado, USA


Introducing the Improbable Research weekly podcast: Podcast #1

March 4th, 2015

improbableresearchToday is the premiere of the weekly Improbable Research podcast. It’s all about research that makes people LAUGH, then THINK — research about anything and everything, from everywhere —research that’s good or bad, important or trivial, valuable or worthless.

CBS is distributing the Improbable Research podcast, both on the new CBS web site, and on iTunes. (Improbable Research is one of the new, original podcasts CBS is distributing. CBS also has a number of  podcasts of popular CBS radio programs and other longstanding CBS sources.)

Podcast #1: Homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck

  • LISTEN on iTunes or (Or DOWNLOAD it, and listen later)
  • SUBSCRIBE (to receive a new episode, FREE, every week) on iTunes or

This week, Marc Abrahams tells about:

  1. Homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck. (“The First Case of Homosexual Necrophilia in the Mallard Anas platyrhynchos (Aves: Anatidae),” C.W. (Kees) Moeliker, Deinsea, vol. 8, 2001, pp.  243-7. / Kees Moeliker’s TED Talk. / De eendenman’ (The Duck Guy), 2009. / Dead Duck Day.)
  2. The karaoke pandemic. (” Effect of Hydration and Vocal Rest on the Vocal Fatigue in Amateur Karaoke Singers,” E.M. Yiu and R.M. Chan, Journal of Voice, vol. 17, no. 2, June 2003, pp. 216-27.)
  3. Artists’ suicides as economic boons. (Kurt  Cobain / Cameron, Samuel, Bijou Yang, and David Lester (2005). ‘Artists’ Suicides as a Public Good,’ Archives of Suicide Research 9 (4): 389–96. / Lester, David (2003). ‘Suicide by Jumping From a Bridge,’ Perceptual and Motor Skills 97 (1): 338.)
  4. Wascally wabbit wrapping. (Greenway, G. W., and R. E. Garcia Via (1977). ‘Designing and Testing an Improved Packaging for Large Hollow Chocolate Bunnies,’ TAPPI Journal, 80 (8): 133. / Vilela, P. M., and D .Thompson (1999). ‘Viscoelasticity: Why Plastic Bags Give Way When You Are Halfway Home,’ European Journal of Physics, vol. 20, no. 1, January 1999, pp. 15-20. )
  5. Dr. Alias, the hair man. (Alias, A. G. (1996) ‘A Statistical Association Between Liberal Body Hair Growth and Intelligence.’ Presented at the Eighth Congress of the Association of European Psychiatrists, London, UK,12 July. (1995) /. ‘Top Ranked Boxers Are Less Hirsute Than Lower Level Boxers: An Example For the Importance of 5-Alpha-Reductase?Biological Psychiatry, 37 (9): 612–13. (1995). /  ‘Non-Pathological Associational Loosening of Marlon Brando: A Sign of Hypoarousal?’ Biological Psychiatry, 37 (9): 613.)
  6. The mind of the waiter. (Bekinschtein, Tristan A., Julian Cardozo, and Facundo F. Manes. ‘Strategies of Buenos Aires Waiters to Enhance Memory Capacity in a Real-Life Setting.’ Behavioural Neurology, 20: 65–70.)
  7. Combing through the hair data. (Disney World /Robbins, Clarence, and Marjorie Gene Robbins (2003). ‘Scalp Hair Length. I. Hair Length in Florida Theme Parks: An Approximation of Hair Length in the United States of America,’ Journal of Cosmetic Science, 54 (1): 53–62.)


The Personalities of Numbers [part 2 of 3]

March 4th, 2015

Some numbers might be Evil or Odious but others are Happy. A Happy number can be described like this:

happy-numberIf you iterate the process of summing the squares of the decimal digits of a number, then it is easy to see that you either reach the cycle 4→16→37→58→89→145→42→20→4 or arrive at 1. In the latter case you started from a happy number.”

The description comes from a paper in the Rocky Mountain Journal of Mathematics Volume 30, Number 2 (2000), pp. 565-570, entitled: ‘On Happy Numbers’ by professor Samir Siksek of the Mathematics Institute, University of Warwick, UK, and Esam El-Sedy [possibly a.k.a. Essam S. El-Sedy of the Ain Shams University  Department of Mathematics]

“Several questions” say the team “are asked about happy numbers, including: ‘How many consecutive happy numbers can you have? Can there be arbitrarily many?’ It is the purpose of this paper to show that there are sequences of consecutive happy numbers of arbitrary length.” The paper makes progress towards the answers, and can be read in full here.

Note that if a number doesn’t satisfy the conditions described above, it must, lamentably, be an Unhappy Number, (a.k.a. a Sad Number) like 33.

Coming soon : Weird numbers

New penis survey follows in footsteps of Ig Nobel Prize-winning study

March 4th, 2015

A new British survey of international penis size builds on — and cites — an earlier, Ig Nobel Prize-winning Canadian study.

The 1998 Ig Nobel Prize for statistics was awarded to Jerald Bain of Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto and Kerry Siminoski of the University of Alberta for their carefully measured report, “The Relationships Among Height, Penile Length, and Foot Size.” That study was published in Annals of Sex Research, vol. 6, no. 3, 1993, pp. 231-5.)

davidvealephotoThe new study is:

Am I normal? A systematic review and construction of nomograms for flaccid and erect penis length and circumference in up to 15 521 men,” David Veale [pictured here], Sarah Miles, Sally Bramley, Gordon Muir and John Hodsoll, BJU International, epub March 2, 2015. The authors are at The Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London Medical School, King’s College London,South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, King’s College NHS Foundation Trust, London, UK. The study takes its data from earlier studies done in many nations.

BONUS FACT (possibly unrelated): The number 15221, if treated as a postal zip code, identifies the city of Alum Bank, Pennsylvania, which is immediately south of Blue Knob State Park.

BONUS FACT (certainly related): The press officer for King’s College London Medical School, to whom all inquiries are directed, in the press release about this new study, is named Tom Bragg.