Archive for 'Arts and science'

“Less children per man than per woman”

Friday, January 6th, 2017

This week’s Recent Headline of the Week: “Less children per man than per woman“.

That headline runs atop a December 20, 2016 report from Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, in Munich.

(Thanks to H.H. Schwab for bringing this to our attention.)

How to prepare a moth to drive a car

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

Step-by-step, practical instructions for how to prepare a moth to drive a tiny automobile. That’s what this video shows, and the accompanying paper describes:

It’s all published formally as: “Insect-controlled Robot: A Mobile Robot Platform to Evaluate the Odortracking Capability of an Insect,” Noriyasu Ando, Shuhei Emoto, and Ryohei Kanzaki, Journal of Visualized Experiments, no. 118, December 2016, e54802. The authors are at the University of Tokyo. They explain:

“we have developed an insect-controlled robot in which a male adult silkmoth (Bombyx mori) drives a robot car in response to odor stimuli; this can be regarded as a prototype of a future insect-mimetic robot. In the cockpit of the robot, a tethered silkmoth walked on an air-supported ball and an optical sensor measured the ball rotations. These rotations were translated into the movement of the two-wheeled robot. The advantage of this “hybrid” approach is that experimenters can manipulate any parameter of the robot, which enables the evaluation of the odor-tracking capability of insects and provides useful suggestions for robotic odor-tracking.”

BONUS: Michael Price wrote it up for Science magazine, with the headline “Watch this moth drive a scent-controlled car.”

BONUS (somewhat related): The 2005 Ig Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Claire Rind and Peter Simmons of Newcastle University, for electrically monitoring the activity of a brain cell in a locust while that locust was watching selected highlights from the movie “Star Wars.” (They describe that research, in the study “Orthopteran DCMD Neuron: A Reevaluation of Responses to Moving Objects. I. Selective Responses to Approaching Objects,” F.C. Rind and P.J. Simmons, Journal of Neurophysiology, vol. 68, no. 5, November 1992, pp. 1654-66.)


Haute-Cultural-Scientifical Direct-Brain-Stimulation of a Peak-Cultural (Proustian) Pastime

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

This newly published study may by the most impressive—in some senses—academic publication of our time:

The ‘Proust Phenomenon’: odor-evoked autobiographical memories triggered by direct amygdala stimulation in human,” Fabrice Bartolomei, Stanislas Lagarde, Samuel Médina Villalon, Aileen McGonigal, and Christian G. Benar, Cortex, epub December 18, 2016. The authors write:

Vivid memories triggered by odors were particularly well described by the French writer Marcel Proust in his novel Swann’s Way (Du Côté de Chez Swann). The sensorial input provoked by the madeleine cake’s odor, flavor and texture immediately transported him into a vivid and rich past childhood episode. Proust constructed a detailed literary description of psychological characteristics of the reminiscence….

A main characteristic of the Proust phenomenon is its unpredictability, rendering it particularly difficult to reproduce in an experimental setting. The present case is the first to analyze the induction of Proust phenomenon by focal electrical stimulation of the amygdala.

If you find yourself impressed by this study, perhaps you have learned something about yourself.

(Thanks to Neil Martin for bringing this to our attention.)

BONUS: Someone named Simon explains to you the cultural significance of madeleines.

BONUS: In this video, someone named Sonia instructs you on how to make a madeleine:

A look back at the Ig Nobel Prize-spurring Sokal hoax

Monday, January 2nd, 2017

The 1996 Ig Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to the editors of the journal Social Text, for eagerly publishing research that they could not understand, that the author said was meaningless, and which claimed that reality does not exist. The “research” paper was “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” written by Alan Sokal, published in Social Text in Spring/Summer 1996, pp. 217-252. Ig Nobel Prizes, of course, are for achievements that make people laugh, then think.

The publication of that intentionally nonsensical paper — and the fervent defense, by the editors who published it, of the paper’s nonexistent meaning — became known as “The Sokal Hoax”. Now, in January 2017, Jennifer Ruark in the Chronicle of Higher Education takes a look back at what happened, and what the some of key people have to say about it now:

“… Sokal revealed that he didn’t believe a word of what he’d written. It was all a big joke, but one motivated by a serious intention: to expose the sloppiness, absurd relativism, and intellectual arrogance of ‘certain precincts of the academic humanities.’ …”


Tonight’s leap second — and the opera about the leap second

Saturday, December 31st, 2016

The leap second that will make this year, 2016, longer than most people will expect — was the subject of an opera that premiered three months ago, as part of the 26th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, at Harvard University.

The mini-opera is called “The Last Second“. It’s about a plot to secretly add an extra leap second to the world’s clocks, and secretly reap the financial benefits.

Here’s video of the performance — all three acts, each preceded by a scene-setting micro-lecture:

  • micro-lecture 1 (“What’s a leap second, and why do we create them?”)
  • ACT 1
  • micro lecture 2 (“How scientists decide when to create a leap second, and how we do it?”)
  • ACT 2
  • micro-lecture 3 (“The kinds of financial mischief that could be done during an unannounced extra leap second.”)
  • ACT 3 — the Thrilling Conclusion!


We were delighted at the timing of all this. We had already written the opera, and had begun preparing to perform it, BEFORE the scientists who control the world clocks decided to add a leap second to 2016. We invited one of those very scientists to come be part of the show. You can see him delivering the micro lecture that introduced Act 2.

Here are some details about the mini-opera, the performers, and the performance:

  • You can download and read the libretto. It’s part of the printed program that was handed out to each of the 1100 audience members at Sanders Theatre. Parts of the opera were later broadcast on public radio’s “Science Friday” program.
  • Music by Domenico Gaetano Maria Donizetti, Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns, Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, and Frédéric François Chopin, story and words by Marc Abrahams
  • Directed by Maria Ferrante and Robin Abrahams
  • Starring Maria Ferrante and Scott Taylor
  • Featuring The Clock Chorus (Ellen Friend, Abby Schiff, Jean Cummings, Sue Wellington, Daniel Rosenberg, Kevin McCaughey, Michael Skuhersky, Ted Sharpe (chorus wrangler), John Jarcho, Fred Tsai, Erika Hutchinson, Jan Hadland, Kettly Benoit). The chorus ranks was swelled, in the opera’s final act, by the Nobel laureates
  • Backed by the Concentrated Forces of Nature, a distilled orchestra composed entirely of Harvard Medical School researchers Patrick Yacono and Thomas Michel
  • (Prior to Act 1) Special Time Micro-Lecture by Jenny Hoffman (Harvard physics professor)
  • (Prior to Act 2) Special Time Micro-Lecture by John Lowe (NIST time scientist)
  • (Prior to Act 3) Special Time Micro-Lecture by Eric Maskin (Nobel laureate in economics)