Archive for 'Arts and science'

The ‘godfather of graphene’, the frog, and the spoon

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Intelligent Life magazine profiled Ig Nobel Prize winner (and also Nobel prize winnerAndre Geim, under the headline “The Godfather of Graphene“. Here’s a snippet:

IL_Cover_Sept_Oct_14_RGB“Somehow I measure my life and longevity not in years but in the number of accumulated experiences,” he says. Many of these experiences are mountains he has climbed. One is finding a use for an extremely powerful magnet at a university in Holland in the late 1990s. He levitated a frog, and even though this demonstrated nothing new about magnetism, it attracted grants, attention and job offers. It marked him out as a prankster and earned him an Ig Nobel prize from Harvard. Against the advice of more self-important scientists he showed up to collect the prize and, the organisers remember, “was constantly running around telling dirty jokes”. He was especially fond of showing the kind of imagery to be obtained from the reflection of two fingers in a spoon.

Small study suggests suggesting that if women quit smoking, they will think they get bigger breasts

Monday, August 11th, 2014

This tiny Italian study examined the gently-directed breast-centric introspection of a few women who had recently quit smoking. The study is:

Breast change perception in women after smoking cessation. A pilot study,” Cinzia De Marco, Giovanni Invernizzi, Rosalba Miceli, Luigi Mariani, Anna Villarini, Elena Munarini, Roberto Mazza, and Roberto Boffi [pictured below], Tumori, vol. 97, no. 5, pp. 672-675.


The authors, at Istituto Nazionale dei Tumori, Milan, Italy, explain:

A pilot study to evaluate the perception of breast change after cessation [of smoking] and its possible motivational effect on maintenance was carried out. We interviewed 25 premenopausal women who had quit ≥1 year before….

The participants were interviewed by telephone with an open-ended questionnaire (see appendix) about changes in breast size and consistency, weight gain, and dietary and physical activity changes occurring within 3-6 months after smoking cessation. We defined ‘breast change’ as an increase in breast size and/or fullness as experienced by the study women after quitting smoking….

With limitations due to an observational pilot study without a control group, our results indicate that over half of the participants reported breast increase at 6 months…

Further studies are needed to verify this hypothesis; if confirmed, the data could be used as a new motivational tool adding to those already known, such as better skin and muscular oxygenation, which have positive effects from both an aesthetic and psychophysical point of view.

(Thanks to investogator Francis Villatoro for bringing this to our attention.)

BONUS [possibly unrelated]: the 2013 Ig Nobel Psychology Prize-winning study “Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beer Holder’: People Who Think They Are Drunk Also Think They Are Attractive

The new Improbable book, reviewed in USA Today, too

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

Kim Painter did a nice review of the new book, in USA Today today, with the headline “‘Improbable’ studies may make you laugh and think“. Painter also kindly mentions, at the end of her review:

Abrahams’ U.S. book tour this fall will feature “dramatic readings” – by scientists, journalists and others – from some of his favorite studies. The first is at Harvard Book Store in Cambridge at 7 p.m. ET on Sept. 5.

The 24th annual Ig Nobel Prizes (with a food theme) will be live-cast from Harvard University on Sept. 18 at 6 p.m. ET.

The book is, of course, This Is Improbable Too. It’s been getting some attention in other interesting places, too.

You can get the book from Amazon and at most good bookstores.


Crease’s quest: “Has big science killed ‘deep jokes’?”

Sunday, August 10th, 2014

Robert Crease writes, in Physics World:

…Physics, however, has a tradition of thoughtful joke-telling that uses humorous tales inquisitively – to deepen appreciation of a person, of the world, or of both.

Jokes revealing personal characteristics have covered everything from Albert Einstein’s childlike personality and Niels Bohr’s mystique to Wolfgang Pauli’s famously brutal putdowns. Abraham Pais, for example, heard Paul Dirac enthusiastically tell (on several different occasions) a joke about a priest who is newly appointed to serve a village and is doing the rounds to get to know his parishioners. Calling on one modest home, the priest notices that the woman’s house is full of children, and asks how many children she’s got. “10 – five pairs of twins”, comes the reply. “You mean you always had twins?” asks the astonished priest. “No, Father, sometimes we had nothing.” As Pais put it: “Precision at that level had an immense appeal to Dirac.” …

[And as] Pais, quoting Bohr, once put it, “Some subjects are so serious that one can only joke about them.”

(Thanks to investigator Hugo Hammarberg for bringing part of this to our attention.)

The new Improbable book, and its first American review

Saturday, August 9th, 2014

My new book — This Is Improbable Too (OneWorld Publications, 2014, ISBN 978-1780743615) — is now available in America (it was published in the UK this past March). The first US review has appeared, by Steven Poole, in The Wall Street Journal:

The éminence grise behind the Ig Nobels is Marc Abrahams, and for those of us who have heard of only the silliest prize winners, his second compilation of results from the wilder fringes of science suggests that the prize is, after all, rather unkindly named. It is not “ignoble” or entirely stupid and humiliating research but rather, as Mr. Abrahams describes it, research that first makes you laugh and then makes you think….

A prominent thread is a kind of mania for measurement. Readers are likely to think that even the gentle modesty of one researcher is an unwarranted exaggeration when he claims: “The sitting height, leg length, and sitting height index of several groups of Old Virginians is of some interest.” Perhaps the craze for measurement—mensuraphilia? metripathy?—runs in families: The son of the man who measured Old Virginians published a study summing up 35 years of measurements of how fast his fingernails grew.

Then there is the baffling wealth of “2D:4D” research, investigating how the ratio between your second and fourth finger predicts attractiveness or braininess. (Not very reliably, it seems.) Happily, at least, some indefatigable measurers have confirmed the notion that your ears never stop growing throughout your life. The lesson to be drawn from all this is, arguably, optimistic. You can’t have world-changing discoveries without allowing apparently pointless research—not only because the latter sometimes turns into (or at least inspires) the former but because there’s no way to tell what will be important before the results are in….

My favorite British review appeared in The Daily Mail. That review, too, was fairly lengthy. But the tone was different. Here’s my very most favorite part: “It’s almost dementedly inconsequential“.


Also this past week, I was interviewed on The Bob Edwards ShowWithout intending to, I shocked Bob. At the end of the interview he asked me a very general question, to which I gave a very particular answer. The answer involved a historic duck.

You can get the book from Amazon and at most good bookstores.

BOOK TOUR: I will be doing a book tour of sorts in connection with the new book. At some events, I will be joined by colorful scientists, journalists, actors, etc., who will do brief dramatic readings from some of my favorite scientific studies. For details, see the full schedule of events. If you would like to host an event in Boston, NYC, Washington, or elsewhere, please get in touch with us ASAP.

Some of the highlights:

UPDATE (August 10, 2014): Kim Painter did a nice review of  the book, in USA Today today.

THE FIRST ‘THIS IS IMPROBABLE” BOOK: Don’t forget this book’s older sibling, the almost-new Improbable book:

This Is Improbable, by Marc Abrahams, OneWorld Publications, 2012, ISBN 978-1851689316.

Rationalism taken to intoxicating extremes“—The Guardian


Buy a copy (or several!) on