Archive for 'Improbable investigators'

The sword swallowers and their day

Saturday, February 28th, 2015

Ig Nobel Prize winner Dan Meyer is the originator and prime mover behind International Sword Swallowers Day, which is today, which means that most of the world’s approximately 55 (somewhat) organized, professional sword swallowers are or will be swallowing swords in public, which is something they would do pretty much every day if they had their druthers.

The 2007 Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to Brian Witcombe the UK, and Dan Meyer of the US, for their penetrating medical report “Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects” (published in the British Medical Journal, December 23, 2006, vol. 333, pp. 1285-7). Here’s video of their one-minute-long acceptance speech at that year’s Ig Nobel ceremony:

Time Magazine is celebrating the day with an essay about the professionals who use large, pointed objects to practice catch-and-release fishing with themselves. The essay features Dan Meyer, and a portion of the talk Dan gave one year at the Improbable Research session at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science”

“When I put the sword in my mouth, I will repress the gag reflex in the back of the throat. Then I have to go behind my Adam’s apple, my prominentia laryngea, behind the voice box, the larynx, down about through the crichopharyngeal sphincter, up in the upper part of the mouth here. Then down into the esophagus, repress the peristalsis reflex, [muscular contractions] that swallow your food. From there relax the esophageal muscles, relax the lower esophageal sphincter, and slip the blade down into my stomach, repress the wretch reflex in my stomach.”

BONUS FACT: Dan Meyer and his sword will stage a triumphant return appearance at this year’s Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony — the 25th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony — on September 17, 2015, at Harvard University.

BONUS: In this video, Dan Meyer, sword in throat, presents his personal answer to the seldom-asked question: How many pushups would a sword swallower do if a sword swallower did do pushups while swallowing a sword?

The wondrous Walter Pitts and his friends and collaborators

Friday, February 6th, 2015

Amanda Gefter, writing in Nautilus, profiles Walter Pitts:

Thus formed the beginnings of the group who would become known as the cyberneticians, with Wiener, Pitts, McCulloch, Lettvin, and von Neumann its core. And among this rarified group, the formerly homeless runaway stood out. “None of us would think of publishing a paper without his corrections and approval,” McCulloch wrote. “[Pitts] was in no uncertain terms the genius of our group,” said Lettvin. “He was absolutely incomparable in the scholarship of chemistry, physics, of everything you could talk about history, botany, etc. When you asked him a question, you would get back a whole textbook … To him, the world was connected in a very complex and wonderful fashion.”

The Lettvin mentioned there is Jerry Lettvin, who many years later became part of the Improbable Research gang (you may have seen him performing in several Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies). Jerry died in 2011. He was a colorful and influential character.

Jerry and Walter were, among many other things, jokers. Here’s the story of how young Jerry and Walter published their first scientific paper — a hoax that preceded by several decades the celebrated Sokal hoax:

“Psychoses” – A magnificent hoax

BONUS: You may notice a similarity between the early life/career of Walter Pitts and the less colorful early life/career of the title character in the fictional movie “Good Will Hunting.”


Gene Hunt and the hunt for genes

Saturday, January 17th, 2015

hunt3Gene Hunt has, so far, resisted the pressures of nominative determinism. Gene Hunt does not hunt for genes.

No. Gene Hunt hunts  for explanations for evolutionary patterns as expressed in the fossil record. “Empirically,” Gene Hunt says, “I most often work with ostracodes – small, bivalved crustaceans – with much of this work to date on deep-sea forms.”

Gene Hunt, Ph.D., is the curator of Ostracoda in the Department of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC.

Among Gene Hunt’s many publications, you’ll find the metaphorically as well as non-metaphorically cutting-edge study:

Green, Walton A., Hunt, Gene, Wing, Scott L. and DiMichele, William A. 2011. Does extinction wield an axe or pruning shears? How interactions between phylogeny and ecology affect patterns of extinction,Paleobiology, 37(1):72-91


Medicine is sprinkled with metaphorical crumbs

Sunday, January 11th, 2015

2015-01-food-metaphorsMy colleague Lisa Kipersztok (a final-year medical student at Tufts University) and I (Gwinyai Masukume, at the University of the Witwatersrand)  have collected and arranged a new feast of medical food metaphors.

We follow in the footsteps of hungry giants. In the late 1970s Terry and Hanchard in their seminal paper, titled Gastrology: the use of culinary terms in medicine” [PDF]appearing in the British Medical Journal, offered the real first course of food-related medical terms in medical literature.

Almost 50 years later this all consuming field of medicine continues to bear fruitful papers. Lisa and I developed a taste for these medical food-derived terms as used in Pediatrics.

Bridging art and science, we share culinary medical terms, include hand-painted illustrations and offer food for thought on how these terms help and also challenge healthcare workers today. Here is our paper, Food for thought: Palatable eponyms from Pediatrics,” [PDF], in the December 2014 issue of the Malta Medical Journal.

For the food (and medical) connoisseurs, here is a detailed list we prepared, providing a feast for the senses.

And for those who might be wondering how some people see food in unusual places please see the illustrative image (egg-on-string-sign found in a particular heart abnormality) – seeing food is an inexact science!


Egg-on-string sign, images from:

BONUS: Previously on this blog another slice from this delectable field.

He studies scientific crackpottery

Monday, January 5th, 2015

Some scientists study curiosities in their fellow scientists, as well as curiosities in the rest of nature. Laura Gardner studied Chris Miller, a professor of biochemistry at Brandeis University who studies all sorts of things. Miller delights in studying several, apparently related, sorts of scientist. Writing in Brandeis magazine, Gardner’s profile of Miller appears under the headline “An Epistemology of Scientific Crackpottery“. Here’s a small chunk of it:

ChrisMillerMiller spends most of his time studying the structure and function of ion channels, membrane proteins involved in electrical signaling. However, a secondary interest was born when, as a doctoral student, he worked in the lab of an accomplished scientist he ultimately realized was a classic crackpot. Since then, Miller has developed what he calls an “epistemology of scientific crackpottery.”

An epistemology, he explains, “is a system of knowing how we know what we think we know.” He says his is designed to “distinguish the brilliant, creative, contrarian heroes of science, who move their fields forward, from the crackpots, who are also brilliant, creative contrarians.”

Miller’s epistemology proposes four scientific-outlier phenotypes: con men (and they do seem to be all men), like Hwang; mountebanks, more akin to snake-oil salesmen than working scientists; and two types of scientific heretics — heroes and crackpots.

Heretic-heroes interest Miller the most…

(Thanks to investigator Ivan Oransky for bringing this to our attention.)

BONUS: The most renowned scholar of crack pottery was the apocryphal Professor Josiah Carberry of Brown University. Professor Carberry specialized in psychoceramics (the study of cracked pots).