Archive for 'Improbable investigators'

A celebration of Italy’s Ig Nobel Prize winners

Monday, August 18th, 2014

NanoPress published a fond profile of all the Italian winners of the Ig Nobel Prize: “IG Nobel italiani: i vincitori di tutte le edizioni“.

Here is one of them, 2013 Ig Nobel Physics Prize co-winner Alberto Minetti:


Throughout Italy, people will be staying up late to watch the live webcast of this year’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, on September 18 — to see the new crop of Ig Nobel Prize winners. (In Italy, the webcast will be happening during the magical middle-of-the-night hours as Thursday, September 18 becomes Friday, September 19).

The ‘godfather of graphene’, the frog, and the spoon

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Intelligent Life magazine profiled Ig Nobel Prize winner (and also Nobel prize winnerAndre Geim, under the headline “The Godfather of Graphene“. Here’s a snippet:

IL_Cover_Sept_Oct_14_RGB“Somehow I measure my life and longevity not in years but in the number of accumulated experiences,” he says. Many of these experiences are mountains he has climbed. One is finding a use for an extremely powerful magnet at a university in Holland in the late 1990s. He levitated a frog, and even though this demonstrated nothing new about magnetism, it attracted grants, attention and job offers. It marked him out as a prankster and earned him an Ig Nobel prize from Harvard. Against the advice of more self-important scientists he showed up to collect the prize and, the organisers remember, “was constantly running around telling dirty jokes”. He was especially fond of showing the kind of imagery to be obtained from the reflection of two fingers in a spoon.

When a neuroscientist uses the term “firing”…

Thursday, July 31st, 2014

What does a neuroscientist mean when he or she uses the term “firing?”

In October 2013 Peter N Steinmetz, director of the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, published this study:

Testing for effects of different stimuli on neuronal firing relative to background activity,” Peter N Steinmetz and Chris Thorp, Journal of Neural Engineering, vol. 10, no. 5, October 2013.

In July, 2014, Steinmetz was arrested after he carried an AR-15 rifle into the Phoenix airport, according to this and other news reports:

A man who works as a director at the prestigious Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix was arrested Friday after he carried a rifle into Sky Harbor International Airport, Phoenix police said…. When confronted, Steinmetz said that he went to the airport only to buy a cup of coffee and had no other business there, police said. Steinmetz is director of the neuroengineering program at the Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix, according to Barrow’s website.

It is not immediately apparent, to most observers, how those two facts are connected.

Some or many references to Steinmetz turn up if you search the Barrow Institute’s web site, but his name no longer appears on many (or maybe all) of the pages those references refer to.

It is unclear whether the Barrow Institute is firing Steinmetz.

BONUS (probably unrelated): “Regular coffee: A magic bullet or a naked gun? Regular coffee but not espresso drinking is protective against fibrosis in NAFLD,” Guglielmo M. Trovato,  G. Fabio Martines, Francesca M. Trovato, and Daniela Catalano, Journal of Hepatology, vol. 58, no. 6 (2013): 1264-1265.

He and they approached hallucinations mathematically

Sunday, July 27th, 2014

In 2001, Paul Bressloff of the University of Utah, together with four colleagues from elsewhere, made a mathematical assault on the — until then — lack of understanding of what  happens in a so-called “geometric hallucination”. Here’s Bresloff:


Here’s the study:

some-hallucinationsGeometric visual hallucinations, Euclidean symmetry and the functional architecture of striate cortex,” P. C. Bressloff, J. D. Cowan, M. Golubitsky, P. J. Thomas and M. Wiener, Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. B, 40 :299-330 (2001). [Artistic recreations of the hallucinations are reproduced here, right.] The paper begins by saying:

“This paper is concerned with a striking visual experience: that of seeing geometric visual hallucinations…. This paper describes a mathematical investigation of their origin based on the assumption that the patterns of connection between retina and striate cortex (henceforth referred to as V1) — the retinocortical mapöand of neuronal circuits in V1, both local and lateral, determine their geometry.”

Such hallucinations had been classified, much earlier, by psychologist Heinrich Klüver. The paper cites Klüver’s 1966 book Mescal and Mechanisms of Hallucinations (which was a reprint of things that Klüver had published decades earlier):

Halucinatory images were classified by Kluver into four groups caled form constants comprising (i) gratings, lattices, fretworks, ¢ligrees, honeycombs and chequer-boards, (ii) cobwebs, (iii) tunnels, funnels, alleys, cones and vessels, and (iv) spirals.

(Thanks to investigator J. Muegge for bringing this to our attention.)

BONUS: A 1967 review of Klüver’s 1966 book Mescal and Mechanisms of Hallucinations.


A searchable database of Ig Nobel Prize winners

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Our friends at Silk have put together a searchable database of Ig Nobel Prize winners.

Give it a try!