Archive for 'Ig Nobel'

A song for the peoples of Britain, in their hour of dismay

Sunday, June 26th, 2016

This song, called “Harmonious Misunderstanding”, is the thrilling conclusion to “The Jargon Opera“. The mini-opera premiered as part of the 2002 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, at Harvard University. That first performance starred singers Margot Button, Jane Tankersley, and Michelle French, and pianist Greg Neil — accompanied gamely by Nobel Laureates Richard Roberts, William Lipscomb, and Dudley Herschbach, and David King, the Chief Scientific Advisor to the British Government. Karen Hopkin narrated. The song was subsequently performed at many Ig Nobel events in the United Kingdom.

Click on this image to see video of that historic first performance. Below are the words to the song.


[MUSIC: Arne’s “Rule, Britannia”. Words by Marc Abrahams.]

They say that better understanding
Would… make us thrive.
But if we knew what others truly want,
We might not wish them to stay alive.
Mis-under-standing may be the thing
That lets us survive.
True understanding… turns people rather shrill.
It really, really, really, makes them want to kill!

Hail to jargon!
‘Tis so eu-pho-ni-ous!
Jar-gon makes misunderstanding harmo’nious!

The Mid-East hag-gl-ing for peace is
Go-ing to fail
‘Till open, clear communication ceases,
As at Harvard, or even Yale.
The trick to dick-er-ing is to fudge on ev’ry detail.
Mis-under-standing… that’s mutu’lly assured
Some-how lets any major diff’rence be endured.

Hail to jargon!
‘Tis so eu-pho-ni-ous!
Jar-gon makes misunderstanding harmo’nious!

The his-to-ry of every nation
Hither and yon,
Is basic’ly a simple compilation
Of how babble defeated brawn.
All armies get exhausted, but jargon just jabbers on.
Jargon is better… than anything around.
It makes your en-e-my suspect his mind’s unsound.

Hail to jargon!
‘Tis so eu-pho-ni-ous!
Jar-gon makes misunderstanding harmo’nious!

The Klingons often fired a phaser
At Captain Kirk.
But Kirk was such a powerful re-phraser
His words made all of them berserk.
The Klingons always fled because they thought, “He’s such a jerk.”
Jargon is better… than anything in space.
It tri-umphs over a con-vention-al arms race.

Hail to jargon!
‘Tis so eu-pho-ni-ous!
Jar-gon makes misunderstanding harmo’nious!

Harmo-ni-ous misunderstanding —
That’s what we need.
Our leaders must use jargon in demanding
We pretend they know how to lead.
Our children must learn jargon before we teach them to read.
True understanding… makes people rather ill —
They’d really, really, really, rather lis-ten to swill!

Hail to jargon!
‘Tis so eu-pho-ni-ous!
Jar-gon makes misunderstanding harmo’nious!

Hail to jargon!
‘Tis so eu-pho-ni-ous!
Jar-gon makes misunderstanding harmo’nious!!

BONUS FACT: The 2002 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony was preceded by a concert by a then-fledgling musical group called the Dresden Dolls.

Magnetic alignment in warthogs (not just dogs, fish, and deer)

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016

The team that documented magnetic alignment in dogs (a feat for which the researchers won an Ig Nobel Prize), fish in a barrel, and deer, have now done it for warthogs. Their new study is

Magnetic alignment in warthogs Phacochoerus africanus and wild boars Sus scrofa,” Jaroslav Červený, Hynek Burda, Miloš Ježek, Tomáš Kušta, Václav Husinec, Petra Nováková, Vlastimil Hart, Veronika Hartová, Sabine Begall, and E. Pascal Malkemper, Mammal Review, epub June 19, 2016.

“Magnetic alignment (MA) results from the preference of animals to align themselves along the field lines of the geomagnetic field, a behavioural expression of a magnetic sense. MA is well documented for ruminants and might demonstrate a general magnetic sensory ability among artiodactyls. We measured body-axis alignment in 1614 foraging or resting wild boars Sus scrofa, 1849 wild boar beds, and 1347 warthogs Phacochoerus africanus, and found a highly significant north–south preference.”

Conor Gearin, writing in New Scientist magazine, interviews a team member, The interview carries the headline “Electric fields could help us wage war on destructive feral pigs“:


Which way does a pig point? The answer, it turns out, is north – or south.

Many organisms ranging from birds and bees to bacteria are known to have a magnetic sense that helps them navigate. But now it seems swine sense Earth’s magnetic field too – a finding that could help us win the fight against out-of-control feral pigs.

Pascal Malkemper at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany, and his colleagues made this discovery by observing more than 1600 wild boar in the Czech Republic, and more than 1300 warthogs in six African nations. Estimating the direction each animal was pointing in, the biologists found that, on average, they lined up closely with the north-south axis.

And it’s not just how they stand – they also found that wild boar beds face north or south, with a ridge at one end for it to rest its head. Altogether, the team suggests this shows these swine species have a strong sense of Earth’s magnetic fields….

“The fact that the animals align with the field lines suggests that they have a magnetic compass which they might use to navigate,” says Malkemper. Wild pigs can migrate over 50 kilometres between grazing areas. Perhaps a magnetic map of the landscape helps them find their way, he says.

The Hercules Number: How a Dimensionless Physical Parameter Got Its Name

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016

I did not conceive or give birth to the Hercules Number. But I did name it. Here’s the story.

In science and mathematics, we often get to name things. To help with exposition, sometimes we essentially have to name them, because it can help us do a better job of explaining things. In fact, we also enjoy naming things. To borrow some words from the computer game Beyond Zork, we often want a scientific idea to “bask in the glow of a new-forged synonym.”

And we get to name all sorts of things—concepts, theorems, examples, equations, groups, graphs, manifolds, numbers, physical parameters, and more. Sometimes we name them after people—ideally after somebody other than ourselves, and occasionally even after the person who actually had the idea first—and other times we get to be more creative. Naturally, the same object can go by more than one name, especially when multiple scientific fields are involved. On occasion, we fail miserably in our naming adventures. In abstract algebra, for example, there are so-called extra special groups. (My abstract algebra professor at Caltech couldn’t tell us about them without giggling over the name, so that is how you should read the previous sentence.)

One of the peculiar traditions in continuum mechanics (and especially in fluid mechanics) is the incessant naming of dimensionless physical parameters: the Reynolds number, the Rayleigh number, the Prandtl number, the Péclet number, and myriad others. If one states all of these numbers quickly one after another, one would almost have a George Carlin routine, except with a lot less cussing.

Illustration of (a) why it is really hard to separate two interleaved books and (b) the dimensionless parameter now known as the Hercules number. This is figure 2, and the associated caption, in a quick study in Phys. Today 69, 6, 74 (2016).

Illustration of (a) why it is really hard to separate two interleaved books and (b) the dimensionless parameter now known as the Hercules number. [This illustration is Figure 2, and its associated caption, from a quick study in Phys. Today 69, 6, 74 (2016).]

 A recently-introduced dimensionless parameter that caught my eye was the Repunzel number from ponytail physics (the subject of the 2012 Ig Nobel Prize in physics). And the naming of this number was very much on my mind a few months ago when I wrote an entry in the Improbable Research blog about a very cool new paper in Physical Review Letters (PRL) on how hard it is to pull apart two interleaved phone books. The authors of the paper had introduced a dimensionless parameter, but it didn’t have a name. And it clearly required a Herculean effort to pull apart those phone books, so I knew what name I wanted to attach to that dimensionless parameter. So with inspiration that was part Herculean, part Oxonian (I have spent the last 9 years in Oxford surrounded by applied mathematicians who study continuum mechanics), and part Repunzelian, I wrote the following sentence:

Restagno and colleagues also fit the data to a curve of force versus a dimensionless amplification parameter—following the continuum-mechanics tradition of using cute names for dimensionless parameters, let’s call it the “Hercules number”—that depends on the number of pages, the page thickness, and the size of the overlap region between the books.

The authors of the PRL paper enjoyed the new monicker—one might even say that the Hercules number was basking in the glow of its new-forged synonym—and they mentioned it to me via Twitter. And now Kari Dalnoki-VeressThomas Salez, and Frédéric Restagno (three of the authors of the original PRL paper) have written a “quick study” in the June 2016 issue of Physics Today. As you’ll notice, they use the name Hercules number, and of course I am very pleased about that. I am always happy to contribute to mathematics and physics with my wit and snark.

Bonus: When it comes to naming a scientific idea after a person (and whether or not one has chosen the correct one), I would like to invoke the “Three Laws of Discovery” that are listed among the quotations on Ig Nobel laureate Michael Berry’s website:

  1. Discoveries are rarely attributed to the correct person. (Arnold’s Law, which is of course self-referential)
  2. Nothing is ever discovered for the first time. (Berry’s Law)
  3. Everything of importance has been said before by someone who did not discover it. (Whitehead’s Law, though I am not sure which Whitehead it is. I assume it is one of the mathematical ones.)

Another Bonus: The story of the penguin diagram in nuclear physics is absolutely lovely. (That name came about substantially through the efforts of Melissa Franklin, whom you may have heard on Improbable Research podcasts.)

A Third Bonus: In mathematics, there is a problem called the Ten Martini Problem.

4.5 million looks at a couple’s sex organs

Saturday, June 11th, 2016

The historic video of the video of MRI sex has gone past the 4.5 million (4,500,000) views mark on YouTube. Dr. Pek van Andel produced the MRI sex video as a spinoff from his historic, ultimately prize-winning experiment. The experiment asked and answered the question: Is it possible to take MRI images of a couple’s sexual organs while those organs are in use?

The Ig Nobel prize in medicine, in the year 2000, was awarded to Willibrord Weijmar SchultzPek van Andel, and Eduard Mooyaart of Groningen, The Netherlands, and Ida Sabelis of Amsterdam, for their report, “Magnetic Resonance Imaging of Male and Female Genitals During Coitus and Female Sexual Arousal.” [Published in British Medical Journal, vol. 319, 1999, pp 1596-1600.]

BONUS: Ida Sabelis, one of the people inside the MRI tube, later wrote about the experience. That account was published in the Annals of Improbable Research.

BONUS: Dutch filmmaker Bahram Sadeghi later made a short documentary about the people involved in the experiment. Here it is:

BONUS [July 3, 2012]: Investigator Tony Tweedale alerts us to the consequential connection between the above video and the one displayed, on the New Scientist web site, under the headline “Baby’s birth captured in MRI movie for the first time“:

How do muskoxen react to humans disguised as polar bears?

Sunday, June 5th, 2016

The recent experiment by Joel Berger and colleagues, to test how muskoxen react to humans disguised as polar bears, was inspired by the Ig Nobel Prize-winning experiment done by two Norwegian scientists. This brief video shows the new experiment:

The 2014 Ig Nobel Prize for arctic science was awarded to Eigil Reimers and Sindre Eftestøl, for testing how reindeer react to seeing humans who are disguised as polar bears. That research is documented in the study “Response Behaviors of Svalbard Reindeer towards Humans and Humans Disguised as Polar Bears on Edgeøya,” Eigil Reimers and Sindre Eftestøl, Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, vol. 44, no. 4, 2012, pp. 483-9.

The Wildlife Conservation Society issued a press release about the new experiment:

The trip was spearheaded by Dr. Joel Berger of the WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) Arctic Beringia Program and professor at Colorado State University, in collaboration with his Russian colleagues Dr. Alexander Gruzdev, Ilya Borisovich, Igor Oleinikov, Grigory Nikolaevich, and Sergey Abarok.

Expedition members brought back stunning photos and video taken during this expedition, including a charge of the scientists by a muskox. Berger approached a herd of 40 muskoxen dressed alternately as a polar bear and as a caribou, to gauge responses to species the animals may increasingly encounter due to climate change.

Mary Beth Griggs writes about the new experiment, in Popular Science, with this photo of the human in the polar bear suit:


Jacqueline Ronson, too, writes about the new experiment, in Inverse: “This Scientist Donned a Polar Bear Suit to Chase Muskoxen Around the Arctic.” It features this photo of a human in a caribou costume, acting as a control — something to provoke (or not) the muskoxen by way of comparison with the provocation of the human in the polar bear costume: