Archive for 'Improbable investigators'

Novel Mode of Capturing a Heron (1866)

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

hardwickes-science-gossipHardwicke’s Science-Gossip was a monthly publication that brought science (mostly botany, zoology and geology) to the masses. Science-Gossip provided short summaries of scientific studies (mostly botany and zoology); advice to the hobbyist on raising reptiles, catching rare butterflies, building a microscope, etc; and most interesting, pages and pages of correspondence, answering readers’ questions and reprinting readers’ anecdotes.

Though it did not seek to publish real scientific studies, on occasion Science-Gossip could be the venue for new discoveries. For example, the March 1866 edition recounts one young investigator’s novel technique for capturing a bird. Like all the best breakthroughs, it occurred unexpectedly, in the process of trying to do something else.


Novel Mode of Capturing a Heron. – Whilst visiting, in the autumn of 1865, at a small Northamptonshire market-town, situated intermediately in the flat district called the Nene Valley, which stretches from Northampton to Peterborough on each side of the river Nene, an incident of rather a ludicrous character, which may interest some of your readers, came under my notice.

A boy, having one night set some eel lines in a shallow part of the river… was surprised and somewhat alarmed on approaching the place next morning, for the purpose of examining his lines, by hearing the water in a state of violent commotion; advancing carefully, and parting the bulrushes with his hands, he peered cautiously through into the river, and discovered to his terror, that the cause of the splashing and dashing was an unlucky heron, who had gobbled up one of the baits, and… now found himself held a prisoner by the line. The boy, still frightened, warily drew up the peg, and dragging the unfortunate and reluctant bird the full length of the line in his rear, marched toward home.

He experienced considerable difficulty when crossing the meadows which lay between the river and the town, in persuading the heron to get over the stiles; but at last they reached the town, and I need scarcely say that in marching up the street the pair created quite a sensation: the boy walking sideways, staring in an excited manner alternately at the people at the doors, from which the sight elicited so much merriment and laughter, and at the heron, who averse to being drawn in such a manner from his favorite haunts… with body drawn back, and legs planted forward in a determined manner, slid, rather than walked, after his captor.

Captive birds can do many jobs.

A typical workplace environment for captive birds

–E. Parkins, Luton.

E. Parkins is not clear on whether the young fisherman used this technique to recruit an army of captive birds, which could then be used to catch a multitude of fish, ukai style.

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Marketing opportunity for Death Is Wrong?

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

Gennady Stolyarov II, author of the book Death Is Wrong, is missing a marketing opportunity. He has not even tried to consult with the most influential person who would agree with him on the letter of that sentiment, if not in the details.

That influential person is Lal Bihari, founder and president of the Association of Dead Persons. Mr. Bihari was awarded the 2003 Ig Nobel Peace Prize for a triple accomplishment: First, for leading an active life even though he has been declared legally dead; Second, for waging a lively posthumous campaign against bureaucratic inertia and greedy relatives; and Third, for creating the Association of Dead People. This photo shows Mr. Bihari and several of his dead colleagues:


Mr. Bihari, who is no longer dead, but is still president of the association, recently convened with several of his fellow Ig Nobel Prize winners, at an event in Goa, India.

Meghan Neal wrote a profile, in Motherboard, of Mr. Stolyarov and his book.



Neal summarizes the book and its creator:

Gennady Stolyarov… strongly believes that human beings don’t have to die, or at least, will live much, much longer in the future. A writer and transhumanist activist, Stolyarov sees death as something that can be “solved” by technology and science, and one day it will possible to extend life indefinitely. To that end, he’s trying to buck the cultural perception that mortality is inevitable, and he’s starting with kids.

Stolyarov published the children’s book Death Is Wrong in November and is now promoting it with an Indiegogo campaign, trying to crowdfund $5,000 to print and distribute 1,000 copies of the book and get the anti-death word out.

Farewell, beloved professor (of Gilligan’s Island)

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

Sad news: Russell Johnson, the actor who played the role of The Professor on the TV show Gilligan’s Island, has died. In 1993, Mr. Johnson took a star turn at the 3rd First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, back when we were still holding the ceremony at MIT. When I introduced him on stage, the audience—many of whom were MIT and Harvard students, faculty and staff— went utterly wild with joy and tears. Afterwards, many audience members told us that when they were growing up The Professor was the *only* scientist character on TV who was portrayed as a nice guy, rather than as a weirdo or evil creature.

In person, before the ceremony, Mr. Johnson told us he was fearful that people in the audience would think badly of him for pretending (in the TV series) that he was a scientist. We all assured him that, to the contrary, people were thrilled at the chance to be in the same room with him. It was a very happy and moving experience for all of us.

You can see Russell Johnson in this photo, seated at right in the front row, wearing glasses, a tie, and dark jacket, applauding. (The man in the white coat is Harvard professor William Lipscomb, at the moment that an audience member won him as the prize in the first-ever Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest. The man in the Einstein wig is astronomer Alan Lightman, author of the then-recent book Einstein’s Dreams. A bonus fact: We almost—almost!—managed to get Dawn Wells, the actress who played Mary Ann in Gilligan’s Island, to be in that ceremony… but the logistics of her schedule and our ceremony did not fit together quite well enough to make it possible.)


The Wrap reports:

Russell Johnson, the Professor on ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ Dead at 89

Russell Johnson, who played the professor on “Gilligan’s Island,” died Thursday morning, his agent confirmed to TheWrap. He was 89.

Johnson died at his home in Washington state of natural causes, his agent, Michael Eisenstadt said.

Johnson was the last surviving male castaway from the TV series that ran from 1964 to 1967. Bob Denver (Gilligan) died in 2005; Alan Hale (the Skipper) died in 1990; and Jim Backus (Mr. Howell) died in 1989. Natalie Schafer (Mrs. Howell) died in 1991; Dawn Wells and Tina Louise (Mary Ann and Ginger) are the last surviving castmembers….


Here’s a glimpse of  The Professor on Gilligan’s Island, and below it, the opening them from Gilligan’s Island:

Thanks to Sarah Cole for bringing the sad news to our attention.

BONUS: A 1993 interview with Russell Johnson,  in the Toronto Sun, just before he went to the Ig Nobel ceremony

BONUS: Libby Shaw‘s firsthand account of the 1993 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony

Improbable Research Returning to Arisia — Saturday, Jan 18

Thursday, January 16th, 2014

Arisia LogoImprobable Research returns to New England’s largest science fiction and fantasy convention in January, to air interesting research which is neither fiction nor fantasy!

We have challenged Arisia’s attendees in past years by showing them diagrams from real patent applications and asked, “What do you think this is? – What do you think this is meant to do?”.  And we have tested their appreciation of actual science by reading excerpts from scientific research (for example) on devising parachutes for toxic-laced rodents, on objects doctors have removed from their patients’ recta, on the best way to blow up a dead horse, on UK ostriches directing mating dances toward humans, on how long you need to be infested with ear mites before you regain some of the hearing they at first caused to diminish…

Each year there are new papers, new readers, new ideas…   and some returning ones too. Here are some details for attending our session at Arisia 2014:

What: Arisia 2014
Date:  Saturday, January 18
Time:  11am EST
Location:  Grand Ballroom DE  (Westin Boston Waterfront hotel)
Session Name: Improbable Research and the Ig® Nobel Prize
Misc:  We will have a limited number of FREE copies of our Magazine available at this event.
Misc: After the event we will make the papers we read (and some that we didn’t) available

Please note:  If you are a member of the LFHCfS and plan to attend Arisia, please introduce yourself to us before we start the session and we will help give you all the public admiration your membership deserves

Some of the images we've used to challenge Arisia goers

Some of the images we’ve used to challenge Arisia goers

The omnibus mixed-up paternity/genetics/academics adventure of T. Lippert

Friday, January 10th, 2014

The Faculty Lounge blog has a long (but riveting!) account of the very strange story of Tom Lippert. One of its many aspects echoes of the story of Cecil Jacobson (Dr. Jacobson was awarded the 1992 Ig Nobel Prize in biology for devising a simple, single-handed method of quality control. [REFERENCE: "The Babymaker : Fertility Fraud and the Fall of Dr. Cecil Jacobson"]). Here  are skimpy highlights from the Faculty Lounge account:

From the truth is (a lot) stranger than fiction files comes this disturbing story, which interweaves—in ways that would be deemed implausible, if they appeared in a fiction manuscript—several of the topics I’ve written about here before: legal academia, human subjects research (sort of), reproductive technologies, direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing, and preference heterogeneity…. The couple, it turns out, had had difficulty conceiving, and in 1991 had sought the help of Reproductive Medical Technologies, a fertility clinic associated with the University of Utah….  Admittedly, discovering that someone in the fertility clinic substituted his sperm for the husband-client’s is slightly more fantastical, but hardly unheard of in the real world. Tom’s mother, still living, consented to genetic testing, which confirmed that Tom was indeed the daughter’s biological father. What happens next, however, reads like the kind of fantastical plot elements that would get a fiction manuscript tossed….

The family discovers, through Tom’s mother and some Internet sleuthing, that Tom had lived a most improbable life, even before getting into the semen substitution business:

Tom had been a brilliant law student at Notre Dame Law School and had gone on to a promising early career as a law professor at Southwest State College. However all that changed, when at 25, he was accused of hatching a bizarre plan to kidnap a young Purdue student and hold her as a prisoner in a “love experiment”. The student was reportedly kept in a black box and subjected to electric shock therapy in an attempt to brainwash her into falling in love with Tom.

BONUS: The Salt Lake City Tribune‘s 2014 account of recent developments: “Report: Utah kidnapper is woman’s father due to semen switch

BONUS: People magazine’s 1975 account of an early part of the story: ”Was Susan Cochran Kidnapped or Merely Being Wooed in a Strange Courtship?