Archive for 'Ig Nobel'

Woodpeckers don’t get headaches. They give them.

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017

This Woodpecker Will Drill Into Your Skull And Eat Your Brains—If You’re a Baby Dove,” explains an article by Jason Bittel in Smithsonian magazine. It says:

In 2015, Harold Greeney [pictured here, horizontal] trained his camera on a mourning dove nest stitched into the crook of a cactus. As an ornithologist, Greeney studies the love lives of birds…

What happens next may upset you (and in fact, if you’re sensitive to bird-on-bird violence, you may want to stop reading here). Before the chicks even realize there’s an enemy at the gates, the woodpecker cocks its head back and starts to peck … their skulls. The Gila’s head moves like a pneumatic hammer, up and down, up and down, drilling into flesh and bone with the force of 1,000 G’s. Soon both chicks’ skulls have been opened up like coconuts. At this point, the woodpecker begins extracting brain and blood with its long, sticky tongue….

Greeney has a possible explanation as to what’s happening—but it probably won’t make you feel any better. When Gila woodpeckers get thirsty, he speculates, they crack open a couple of nestling heads like you or I might open a six-pack. “My guess is that these woodpeckers, like most birds in the Sonoran Desert, are fluid or water stressed,” he says. “This woodpecker appears to me to be clearly targeting the heads of the nestlings, and thus purposefully opening them to drink fluid—and this may be something that happens more often than is documented….

Here’s part of that video:

Other scientists have explored how woodpeckers can peck so stridently without (apparently, anyway) themselves getting headaches. The 2006 Ig Nobel Prize for biology was awarded to Ivan R. Schwab, of the University of California Davis, and the late Philip R.A. May of the University of California Los Angeles, for exploring and explaining why woodpeckers don’t get headaches. Their work is documented in these papers:

  • Cure for a Headache,” Ivan R Schwab, British Journal of Ophthalmology, vol. 86, 2002, p. 843.
  • Woodpeckers and Head Injury,” Philip R.A. May, Joaquin M. Fuster, Paul Newman and Ada Hirschman, The Lancet, vol. 307, no. 7957, February28, 1976, pp. 454-5.
  • Woodpeckers and Head Injury,” Philip R.A. May, Joaquin M. Fuster, Paul Newman and Ada Hirschman, The Lancet, vol. 307, no. 7973, June 19,1976, pp. 1347-8.

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)

Ig Nobel Prize interview on the RT Network

Monday, December 26th, 2016

Sophie Shevardnadze interviewed me about the Ig Nobel Prizes, on the RT network’s “Sophie & Co.” program. I had cut myself shaving, that morning, before traveling to the TV studio. In the video here, you can see me bleeding all over Russian TV for a half hour while discussing improbable research with Sophie:

A very Ig Nobel start with your magazines…

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

Your Annals of Improbable Research subscription will start with the special Ig Nobel issue — if you subscribe now.

The magazine brings you research that makes people LAUGH, then THINK.

Real research, about anything and everything, from everywhere —research that’s maybe good or bad, important or trivial, valuable or worthless. Compiled for you, by the producers of the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. Six (6) new Improbable issues every year!