Archive for 'Improbable investigators'

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?

The past and further adventures of Troy Hurtubise (of grizzly fame) (Part 2 of 3)

Monday, January 6th, 2014

Ig Nobel Prize winner Troy Hurtubise explains in exquisite detail why and how he has spent 25 years building and testing a suit of armor to protect himself against grizzly bears. Vice presents a three-part interview with Troy. Yesterday we enjoyed part 1.

Here’s part 2, about how Troy has been adapting his anti-grizzly-bear technology to protect military personnel:


BONUS (from 2011): Troy’s New Book of Bear (and then some) Adventures

The past and further adventures of Troy Hurtubise (of grizzly) (Part 1 of 3)

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

Ig Nobel Prize winner Troy Hurtubise explains in exquisite detail why and how he has spent 25 years building and testing a suit of armor to protect himself against grizzly bears. Vice presents a three-part interview with Troy.

Here’s part 1, about his grizzly bear work:


BONUS (from 2001): When Troy Met a Kodiak Bear

BONUS: Troy demonstrates that he, like a bear, can eat ants:

BONUS: Old, unreal ants you can’t eat

BONUS: The scientist who ate 100 ants, repeatedly

PS. Yes—and sorry!—there is a typo in the headline of this blog item. It should say “…of grizzly fame”