Archive for 'Improbable investigators'

Professional Football Player by Day, Spectral Graph Theorist by Night

Saturday, March 21st, 2015

urschelJohn Urschel is not your ordinary National Football League offensive lineman. He may be a professional football player by day, but by night he is a spectral graph theorist (and numerical linear algebraist). His latest paper has now been accepted for publication in Journal of Computational Mathematics. Urschel announced via Twitter that his paper had been officially accepted for publication. (Based on my googling, the final version of the paper hasn’t yet appeared.)

Here is the paper’s abstract as it appears in the preprint:

In this paper, we develop a cascadic multigrid algorithm for fast computation of the Fiedler vector of a graph Laplacian, namely, the eigenvector corresponding to the second smallest eigenvalue. This vector has been found to have applications in fields such as graph partitioning and graph drawing. The algorithm is a purely algebraic approach based on a heavy edge coarsening scheme and pointwise smoothing for refinement. To gain theoretical insight, we also consider the related cascadic multigrid method in the geometric setting for elliptic eigenvalue problems and show its uniform convergence under certain assumptions. Numerical tests are presented for computing the Fiedler vector of several practical graphs, and numerical results show the efficiency and optimality of our proposed cascadic multigrid algorithm.

You can read a draft of Urschel’s paper, called A Cascadic Multigrid Algorithm for Computing the Fiedler Vector of Graph Laplacians, on the arXiv preprint server. I just wish that he used his current affiliation on the paper, because that would have been fantastic.

(Thanks to investigator Francis Su for bringing this to our attention.)

Bonus: Many other famous people who are more traditionally associated with non-scientific walks of life have also contributed to science. The people on this list include Danica McKellar, Natalie Portman, Mayim Bialek, and Hedy Lamarr.

Another Bonus: Using the MathSciNet website for examining publication paths between mathematical scientists, you can see that John Urschel’s Erdős number is at most four.

A Third Bonus: Here is Urschel’s academic website at Penn State. He previously published a paper about a topic in celestial mechanics. Urschel also has at least one more paper on spectral graph theory.

Nominative Determinism: A. Pothecary, the pharmacist

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

At last night’s Ig Nobel show at the University of Portsmouth, an audience member responded to New Scientist features editor Richard Webb‘s talk about Nominative Determinism. Today, that audience member send this follow-up note:

You are unlikely to remember, but I made a comment following the talk on Nominative Determinism. I referred to a Pharmacy student we had at Portsmouth, a Mr. A. Pothecary.

I have looked him up on the register of Pharmacists, and confirmed that he is now a practising Pharmacist. Sadly, there is only one A. Pothecary on the Pharmacist register.


Dr. Tim Mason
Visiting Lecturer in Medical Microbiology
School of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences
University of Portsmouth

Andrew Pothecary is scheduled to speak at the Clinical Pharmacy Congress in London, in April.

Mr. Pothercary is a popular fellow, having been profiled last year by journalist W.B. Miles in The West Briton:

The most apt name in Britain? Mr A Pothecary the pharmacist

A medical expert from Truro could have the most appropriate name for his profession in the country.

Mr A Pothecary – whose first name is Andrew – is a specialist pharmacist at the Royal Cornwall Hospital. An apothecary is the historical term for a medical professional who dispensed medicines to doctors, surgeons and patients.

Mr Pothecary said he had enjoyed considerable success in his career but believed he might have been turned down for some pharmaceutical jobs when employers thought the name on the application form was an attempt at humour. “I’ve always been attracted to scientific stuff and I thought of doing something in biochemistry or medicine,” he said….

NOMINATIVE DETERMINISM BONUS: The University of Portsmouth’s School of Pharmacy and Biomedical Sciences has a senior lecturer named Michael Leech.

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