Archive for 'Ig Nobel'

Is science that seems crazy crazy?

Monday, June 29th, 2015

The news is awash today with the question: Is scientific research that makes people laugh bad or is it good, or what?

Shirley Wang, in the Wall Street Journal, explores the general question, under the headline “Science Wants to Know: Can Worms Swim?” It begins:

Can worms learn to swim? And why do some people see the face of Jesus on their toast?

Science is filled with research that can appear wacky or silly, obvious or trivial. Some topics elicit concern from both inside and outside the scientific community about whether they answer important questions or waste time and taxpayer money.

But sometimes the seemingly oddest studies add meaningfully to scientific knowledge, provoke a new direction for inquiry or spur a different way of understanding a phenomenon. Predicting what research will be significant can be difficult. It may not become apparent for years or even decades.

As the money from the government to support and conduct research gets tighter, scientists and funding agencies say it’s increasingly difficult to get any grants, particularly for high-risk research. More big grants go to researchers who have already tested out their methods and can show data suggesting their proposed experiments will work, they say….

Also today, Kelly Servick reports, in the journal Science, on a specific research program that achieved “Sorting cells through levitation” It begins:

What looks like a row of drifting gumdrops could hold a wealth of information for both clinical researchers and bench scientists. A team of bioengineers and geneticists has designed a device that can suspend a single living cell between magnets and measure its density based on how high it floats. Such measurements could be used to sort different types of cells—to distinguish cancerous cells from healthy ones, for example—or to measure how cells change when exposed to drugs.

A demonstration of the approach, published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is “pretty amazing stuff that could be a game changer for a lot of things if true,” says John Minna, a cancer biologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

Researchers have used magnets before to levitate whole creatures, such as living frogs—a bizarre demonstration that won its author an Ig Nobel Prize….

BONUS: Here’s detail, including video, on that cell levitation research.

BONUS: Here’s now-historical video of the Ig Nobel Prize-winning magnetically levitated frog:

Podcast #17: The real-life Wizard of Oz

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

The real-life Wizard of Oz, artificial fruit processing in children and chimps, and other things, turn up  in this week’s Improbable Research podcast.

Click on the “Venetian blinds” icon — at the lower right corner here — to select whichever week’s episode you want to hear:

SUBSCRIBE on Play.it or iTunes, to get a new episode every week, free.
[NEWS: Soon, the podcast will also be available on Spotify.]

This week, Marc Abrahams tells about:

The mysterious John Schedler perhaps did the sound engineering this week.

The Improbable Research podcast is all about research that makes people LAUGH, then THINK — real research, about anything and everything, from everywhere —research that may be good or bad, important or trivial, valuable or worthless. CBS distributes it, both on the new CBS Play.it web site, and on iTunes (and soon, also on Spotify).

The final birthday party of Dr. Nakamats, this Friday in Tokyo

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

I am traveling to Tokyo to take part in the final birthday party — that’s how he describes it — of Dr. Nakamats, the world’s most inventive inventor (more than 3500 patents, including patents for the floppy disk, the self-defense wig, and flying shoes), author, political candidate, Ig Nobel Prize winner (in 2005, for having photographed every meal he had consumed during the previous 34 years) and the closest we will ever see to a real-life Wizard of Oz.

Unlike most people’s birthday parties, this one will happen at the National Press Club, in Tokyo. Dr. Nakamats was diagnosed with a form of prostate cancer that will kill him, his doctors say, some time before the end of this year. Dr. Nakamats, in characteristic form, is choosing to make the very best of the situation. [UPDATE NOTE: See photos from the press conference / party, below.]

There will be nine days of Nakamats and Ig Nobel events — the first-ever official Ig Nobel Prize events to be held in Japan. Several other of Japan’s many Ig Nobel Prize winners will participate in some of those events.

This week’s Improbable Research podcast is largely about Dr. Nakamats, and features the adventure we had recently on a train going from Denmark to Sweden.

If, somehow, you have never encountered the wonder that is Dr. Nakamats, you can get a good introduction by watching Danish filmmaker Kaspar Astrup Schröder’s mesmerizing documentary called “The Invention of Dr. Nakamats.” Schröder is filming a second documentary, which will include footage from some of the upcoming events.

Here is the schedule of events (we will frequently update the details, on our events listing page — so check there to see the latest version of this list):

  • June 26, Friday: Sir Dr. NakaMats 87 the LAST birthday party & Ig Nobel Prizes Japan Event Press Conference, @Japan National Press Club, 10th floor Nippon Press Center Bldg., 2-2-1 Uchisaiwaicho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo Tel:03-3503-2721
  • June 27 (Saturday) 12:00-12:30 Sir Dr. NakaMats Cancer CD Artist Debut Event @GINZA
  • June 28 (Sunday) 13:30- Lecture at Tokyo City University and Setagaya-ku.
  • June 29 (Monday) — special event at the Dr. Nakamats House.
  • June 30 (Tuesday) Ig Nobel event at University of Tokyo – public lecture in science — featuring Dr. Nakamats and other Ig Nobel prize winners: Masanori Niimi (effect of opera songs on heart transplant patients who are mice), Yukio Hirose (why one particular bronze statue fails to attract pigeons), and the team of Shinsuki Imai, Nagatome Yoshiaki, and Tsuge Nobuaki (biochemistry of onions causing human tears), and others. Details TBA.
  • July 1 (Wednesday) 15:00-16:00 — press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. Details.
  • July 3 (Friday) Ig Nobel Event at Chuo-prefecture. Details TBA.
  • July 4 (Saturday) 10:00. Marc Abrahams will cut the tape at the Opening ceremony of the World Genius Convention, of  which Sir Dr. NakaMats is chairman.
  • Other events, possibly in profusion, TBA

If you are in Tokyo, please join us at one or more of these events. If you have friends in Tokyo, please spread the word.

Here is a further look at the world of Dr. Nakamats:

UPDATE: Here are panoramic photos I took while sitting next to Dr. Nakamats at the press conference, and at the Final Birthday Party, which immediately followed the press conference (Click on each image to see an enlarged version):

2015-06-26-Nakamats-press-c

 

2015-06-26-Nakamats-birthday-party

Sad news: Don Featherstone, creator of the plastic pink flamingo, died today

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

Don Featherstone, the creator of the plastic pink flamingo, died this morning. He was a friend, whom we have known since 1996, the year he was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize for art.

Improbable-flamingos-450pix

Don and his wife, Nancy Featherstone, came to almost every Ig Nobel Prize ceremony in succeeding years, where adoring throngs cheered them and the plastic pink flamingos. He has been ill the past few years. This photo shows Don and Nancy (who, every day of their marriage, wore matching outfits designed by Nancy) at the last of Don’s many happy returns, in 2012:

Featherstones-Ig-2012-Benveniste

Don created the flamingo when he was freshly graduated from art school, and newly employed at a plastics factory. One of his first assignments was to create three-dimensional plastic lawn ornaments (up to that time, most plastic lawn ornaments were more or less flat). The flamingo was one of his earliest efforts for the factory.

Eventually he became president of the company. After Don retired, dire things were done, by his successor, to the flamingo, triggering a worldwide protest, which eventually led to a more or less happy rallying of the forces of Good, and a restoration of the plastic pink flamingo’s status. In 2011, the flamingo attained new heights, when the Disney movie Gnomeo and Juliet featured a plastic pink lawn ornament named “Featherstone”. Don and Nancy were feted at the film’s premiere.

The flamingos inspired the film that launched John Waters‘s directorial career: Pink Flamingos. The flamingos also inspired the birth of several businesses that supply flamingoes en mass, as surprise visitors to the lawn of a beloved or despised neighbor. One of those businesses produced this tribute/promotional video, in 2008:

Don Featherstone was a happy, kind, and thoughtfully imaginative man, who became famous for his goofiest, tackiest creation. It was “goofiest” and “tackiest” by Don’s own reckoning — he was a richly talented artist, but felt that, given the fame and financial security the flamingo brought him, he ought to publicly act as if he were interested only in making happy goofy, plastic art. In 2012, Abigail Tucker wrote a history of the flamingo’s effect on the world, in Smithsonian magazine, with the headline “The Tacky History of the Pink Flamingo.”

Please think of Don, and raise a smile, whenever you see a flamingo, be it plastic or of some less physically durable species.

(The photo above shows two of the flamingos Don donated to the Improbable Research museum.)

UPDATE: Reader Scott Valla suggests: “Everyone please stand in your yard on one leg for a moment of silence.”

UPDATE: A few of the press reports about Don’s passing: CNN, Boston Globe, Associated Press / CBS, Washington Post, New York Times, CBS News Sunday Morning

 

Ig Nobel ceremony tickets will go on sale July 9

Sunday, June 21st, 2015

Tickets for the 25th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony will go on sale on THURSDAY, JULY 9, 2015 at NOON (Boston time). They will be available exclusively from the Harvard Box Office (online, by phone, and at Holyoke Center).

If you want us to notify you the day before they go on sale, add yourself to the Improbable events notification private email list.

The ceremony itself will happen on Thursday evening, September 17, at Sanders Theatre, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, Planet Earth, Milky Way, etc.

Here’s the ceremony poster (click on the image to see a hi-res version that you can download):

2015_IgPoster-450pix