Archive for 'Arts and science'

Bird-feather counters exhibited pluck, tediously

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014
hat with feathers 1910

Feathers, on a hat on a person, circa 1910. Photo: Library of Congress.

Many humans have spent days, months or years counting feathers. Here are exciting highlights from some of their reports.

In 1936 Alexander Wetmore, of the US National Museum in Washington, gathered all the published reports he could find about someone or other counting how many feathers were on particular birds. “The work of feather counting is tedious and exacting,” he explained, “and yields small result relative to the labour involved.”

Among Wetmore’s gatherings from his peers: “Dr Jonathan Dwight found 3,235 feathers on a male Bobolink taken in spring. RC McGregor has recorded 1,899 feathers on a Savannah sparrow … and 6,544 on a glaucous winged Gull … Miss Phoebe Knappen has reported 11,903 feathers on an adult female mallard … the bird being one that had died from phosphorus poisoning.”

Wetmore proceeded to have someone he could count on do some do some new counting on his behalf: “The actual labour of counting was done under my direct supervision by Marie Siebrecht (now Mrs James Montroy) who, employed as an assistant, worked carefully and conscientiously at a long and somewhat tedious task”….

—So begins another Improbable Research column in The Guardian.

Tax demands – the funny side (he makes ‘em LAUGH, then PAY)

Monday, December 15th, 2014

John Morreall (pronounced Mor-el), is not only professor of religion and department chair at the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, US, he also runs Humorworks, which, amongst other things, conducts corporate seminars on the subject of humor, with clients such as the Internal Revenue Service, The World Bank, and Ernst & Young.

Thus he investigates the possibilities for things that make people LAUGH and then PAY. Here’s a suggestion regarding IRS tax-demands :

“If you can get people to laugh, and realize that they owe you money, and pay up [that’s] much more successful.”

BONUS: Some say the human condition is a tragedy, others say it’s a comedy – or perhaps a comic tragedy, or maybe a tragicomedy. In either, all, or no cases, the professor presents a paper for the April 2014 edition of the British Journal of Aesthetics, (Volume 54, Issue 2) entitled : The Comic Vision of Life.

“Tragedy has traditionally been ranked higher than comedy, and critics often valorize the ‘tragic vision of life’. Using twenty contrasts between tragedy and comedy, I argue that there is a ‘comic vision of life’ which is superior to the tragic vision, especially in the post-heroic era in which we live.”

Lots and lots of bits of copying in scientific literature

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

A new study indicates that lots of bits of old studies turn up, verbatim, in lots of newer scientific studies. The new study (which I have not checked to see whether it contains uncredited copied text) is:


Patterns of text reuse in a scientific corpus,” Daniel T. Citron  and Paul Ginsparg [pictured here], Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, epub December 8, 2014. The authors at Cornell University, report:

“We consider the incidence of text ‘reuse’ by researchers via a systematic pairwise comparison of the text content of all articles deposited to from 1991 to 2012. We measure the global frequencies of three classes of text reuse and measure how chronic text reuse is distributed among authors in the dataset. We infer a baseline for accepted practice, perhaps surprisingly permissive compared with other societal contexts, and a clearly delineated set of aberrant authors. We find a negative correlation between the amount of reused text in an article and its influence, as measured by subsequent citations.”

Co-author Ginsparg is the creator of arXiv.

John Bohannon gives further details and comment, in Science magazine.

(Thanks to investigator Scott Langill for bringing this to our attention.)

Are shoes good for you?

Sunday, December 14th, 2014

The Swiss researchers who (some of them) two years ago did an “analysis of a piece of shit”  now supply an answer to the question “Are shoes good for you?” They are two-fifths of the way towards completing the poetical list “shoes and shit [reverse sic] and sealing wax, cabbages and kings“.

Their shit study is called “An In-Depth Analysis of a Piece of Shit: Distribution of Schistosoma mansoni and Hookworm Eggs in Human Stool.” Their shoes study is:

Association between Footwear Use and Neglected Tropical Diseases: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Sara Tomczyk, Kebede Deribe, Simon J. Brooker, Hannah Clark, Khizar Rafique, Stefanie Knopp, Jürg Utzinger, Gail Davey, PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, 8(11), epub Novembr 13, 2014. e3285. (Thanks to Pratik Dave for bringing this to our attention.) The authors report:

Utzinger“Consistent use of footwear may help in preventing or slowing down the progression of many neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). We conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis to assess the association between footwear use and infection or disease for those NTDs for which the route of transmission or occurrence may be through the feet. We found that footwear use reduces the risk of Buruli ulcer, tungiasis, hookworm, any STH infection, strongyloidiasis, and leptospirosis. No significant association between footwear use and podoconiosis was found and no data were available for mycetoma, myiasis or snakebite. We recommend that access to footwear should be prioritized alongside existing NTD interventions to ensure a lasting reduction of multiple NTDs and to accelerate their control and elimination.”

Professor Jürg Utzinger [pictured here], a driving force behind both studies, will soon take on new responsibilities:

The Board of Governors of the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH) has elected Prof. Jürg Utzinger as the new director with effect from 1 July 2015. The vote was unanimous. Prof Utzinger will succeed Prof. Marcel Tanner, who has led the Institute with great success since 1997 and is to stand down after three terms in office on 30 June 2015.

Feynman on the difference between names and what’s going on

Saturday, December 13th, 2014

Richard Feynman told stories that got people thinking. This passage from a talk Feynman gave at a meeting of the National Science Teachers Association in 1966 in New York City, was later printed — as part of a transcript of the entire talk — in The Physics Teacher, vol. 7, issue 6, 1969, pp. 313-320.

The next day, Monday, we were playing in the fields and this boy said to me, “See that bird standing on the stump there? What’s the name of it?”

I said, “I haven’t got the slightest idea.”

He said, “It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn’t teach you much about science.”

I smiled to myself, because my father had already taught me that [the name] doesn’t tell me anything about the bird. He taught me “See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halsenflugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird–you only know something about people; what they call that bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way,” and so forth. There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on.

The result of this is that I cannot remember anybody’s name, and when people discuss physics with me they often are exasperated when they say “the Fitz-Cronin effect,” and I ask “What is the effect?” and I can’t remember the name.

I would like to say a word or two — may I interrupt my little tale — about words and definitions, because it is necessary to learn the words.

It is not science. That doesn’t mean, just because it is not science, that we don’t have to teach the words. We are not talking about what to teach; we are talking about what science is. It is not science to know how to change Centigrade to Fahrenheit. It’s necessary, but it is not exactly science. In the same sense, if you were discussing what art is, you wouldn’t say art is the knowledge of the fact that a 3-B pencil is softer than a 2-H pencil. It’s a distinct difference. That doesn’t mean an art teacher shouldn’t teach that, or that an artist gets along very well if he doesn’t know that. (Actually, you can find out in a minute by trying it; but that’s a scientific way that art teachers may not think of explaining.)