Archive for 'Improbable investigators'

Sad news: John Hoyland, father of “nominative determinism”, is gone

Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

Very sad news. John Hoyland, my good friend and longtime collaborator, has died. John created “Feedback“, the best column in New Scientist, my favorite magazine (favorite other than Annals of Improbable Research, of course).

As a happy subscriber to New Scientist, I knew and loved John’s work, long before I met him. We began corresponding and collaborating from afar, and in either 2000 or 2001 we finally met, when my wife and I took a trip to London. John and I became fast friends. After that, our collaboration — exchanging good stories whenever one of us felt he had something best suited to the other’s magazine — grew frequent and sometimes giddy (when we ran across things that were especially juicy).

John was one of the best storytellers I ever met. Many of the stories involved John, who lived gleeful, impassioned lives in many worlds — radical journalism (that’s how he liked to describe it), music (as an organizer and a journalist), and later in his career, science journalism. He had a public quarrel, and then a friendship with John Lennon. This video shows John telling part of  the Lennon saga, and then dipping into some of his vast knowledge and lovingly nurtured opinions (John had more than 39 million — I counted them! — lovingly nurtured opinions on various subjects) about music:

The “Feedback” column was and is a collection of odd factual bits about science and the people related to science. Much of it involves cracks in logic, either of people or of the universe. The blurbs in “Feedback” make readers laugh, and then think. As, I hope, do all the bits and pieces in the Annals of Improbable Research and the Ig Nobel Prizes — it’s no accident that John and I liked each other’s work and directed so much good material to each other. John was “Feedback”‘s ringleader, gathering and lightly editing the hard-to-classify bits that New Scientist‘s ace writers and readers were and are always stumbling across and sending his way.

John’s most famous creation, probably, is the phrase “Nominative Determinism“. John devised the phrase and wrote about it, in 1994:

“WE recently came across a new book, Pole Positions – The Polar Regions and the Future of the Planet, by Daniel Snowman. Then, a couple of weeks later, we received a copy ofLondon Under London – A Subterranean Guide, one of the authors of which is Richard Trench. So it was interesting to see Jen Hunt of the University of Manchester stating in the October issue of The Psychologist: “Authors gravitate to the area of research which fits their surname.” Hunt’s example is an article on incontinence in the British Journal of Urology (vol 49, pp 173-176, 1977) by J. W. Splatt and D. Weedon. (This really does exist. We’ve checked it).”

The article does indeed exist.

Here’s a recording of John explaining the concept, on the radio program “The World”, apparently in 2011.

Fed by an unstoppable flow of info sent in by New Scientist‘s readers and reporters, “Feedback” became the prime gathering place for news about people whose names matched up disturbingly well with their lot in life. From time to time John decided to ease up, partly for fear that Nominative Determinism items would overwhelm the page-a-week confines of “Feedback”. I was often the happy beneficiary of these periods — John would send me the best of what he could not or would not use, and I would steer it into the mix in Improbable Research.

In 2003 I began coming to the UK every March to do a series of shows with Ig Nobel Prize winners and others, as part of the UK’s National Science Week, and got to spend many happy hours and days having adventures and swapping stories with John. In 2005, I badgered John into becoming part of our show, to tell audiences about some of his favorite items from “Feedback”.

I had to badger him into it because John had severe stage fright. He said he had never really told stories in front of an audience. I was shocked, because John Hoyland truly was one of the most gifted storytellers I had ever encountered, and he was not shy about telling them to friends and anyone he might encounter. At the Ig Nobel shows, when I finally got him there, John would fidget, fret and shake before the moment came for him to step onto the stage. And then, as he started to talk, and also show pictures of some of the odd, funny things he was talking about, the audiences decided they loved what they were hearing, and loved most that they were hearing it from John.

In this video, you can see John’s talk at our Imperial College London show, on the 2008 Ig Nobel tour of the UK. John comes in a little after the 30-minute point. You’ll notice that John relaxes and begins to fly as the talk progresses:

Seeing that, you may find yourself itching to look up the word “hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia“.

John remained a big part of our UK shows until two years ago, when treatments for prostate cancer drained so much energy that John felt he couldn’t fully be John in such a public setting.

Here are some photos of John on tour with us, telling about a curious road sign (sorry about the redeye effect in this photo!):


… in the audience at one of the shows, after (see how relaxed he is?) he had performed his bit on stage:


… and swapping stories and beers (the beer you see in the photo was John’s nth, I think) with us and other fellow passengers (the gent on the left here, for one) on the train back to London from the Cheltenham Science Festival in 2008:


What I’ve written here describes only a few of the many great aspects of John Hoyland. I never met his like, and don’t expect I or anyone ever will. John made friends easily and quickly, pretty much everywhere he went. If you never got to meet John, you missed someone irreplaceably wonderful.


Magnus Puke, Nordic Sports and Novelty Odds Compiler

Sunday, October 26th, 2014

A man with the memorable name Magnus Puke has a peripheral—yet financially significant role—in the world’s reaction to the Nobel Prizes. Mr. Puke is employed by Ladbrokes, the British bookmaker firm. Bloomberg News reported on him almost a year ago:

the Ladbrokes list has become a guide to a notoriously wide field, at the same time hinting at how the prize is perceived. Its curator is a Swede named Magnus Puke, whose job title at Ladbrokes is Nordic Sports and Novelty Odds Compiler, and who writes love poetry in his spare time.

(HT Simon Frantz)

BONUS: “Are novelty odds good publicity? You bet

Brady Bunch’s Florence Henderson Gets Quizzed About the Ig Nobel Prizes

Saturday, October 25th, 2014

Florence_hendersonFlorence Henderson, the actress who played Mrs. Brady on the TV show The Brady Bunch, answered questions today about the Ig Nobel Prizes. This happened on the NPR program Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me.

You can, if you like, listen to it on the Wait, Wait web site.

Here’s historic video footage of Florence Henderson in The Brady Bunch:


Here’s a transcript [supplied by the Wait, Wait staff] of Florence Henderson answering questions about the Ig:

For decades — during the original run and then countless reruns — Florence Henderson, who presided over the Brady Bunch, was America’s perfect Mom.

We’ve invited Henderson to play a game called “They said you were mad at the Academy! Mad, I tell you!” In September, the Annals of Improbable Research handed out their annual Ig Nobel Awards for achievements in real, if ridiculous, research. We’ll ask three questions about the far horizons of science.

[HOST PETER] SAGAL: Now a few weeks ago, the Annals Of Improbable Research – that’s a journal – handed out their annual Ig Nobel Awards for achievements in real – if ridiculous – science. We’re going to ask you three questions about the far horizons of science.


SAGAL: Answer two of these questions correctly, you’ll win a prize for one of our listeners – Carl Kasell’s voice on their voicemail. Bill, who is the immortal Florence Henderson playing for?

[ANNOUNCER BILL] KURTIS: Sharon Gavin of Atlanta, Georgia.

SAGAL: All right. Are you ready to do this?

HENDERSON: Oh, my gosh, I’ll feel terrible if I don’t win. Can I send her something?

SAGAL: You may.


SAGAL: Or perhaps her husband might be more appreciative.


SAGAL: Whatever works – but let’s play the game.


SAGAL: OK, here we go. Here’s your first question. The Ig Nobel Prize in physics this year went to a team in Japan that investigated what? Did they investigate A, what would happen to an average building if Godzilla were really to step on it? B, the actual amount of friction between a person’s shoe, a banana peel and the floor; or C, how big Angelina Jolie’s lips could become before they explode?


HENDERSON: You know what, I’m going to go with A.

SAGAL: You’re going to go with A, what would happen to an average building if Godzilla were to stop on it?


SAGAL: OK, no. Actually was B, the banana peel.


HENDERSON: Are you serious?

SAGAL: I’m very serious and so were they. According to their exacting measurements, we can now say for sure that a banana peel on a linoleum floor is slippery.


HENDERSON: Now, please.

BABYLON: And funny.

SAGAL: And funny. You have two more chances, so you can do this.


SAGAL: And we always know Mrs. Brady always had a happy ending, so here we go. A special prize was given in Arctic Science and that was given to an international team of scientists who explored what question? A, if ice cubes taken from the polar ice cap can improve a cocktail; B, if putting up big fans on the poles to blow on the Arctic ice can help reverse global warming; or C, how reindeer behave when they are approached by humans dressed as polar bears.

HENDERSON: Oh, jeez. What was A again?

SAGAL: A was if ice cubes taken from the ancient polar ice cap will actually make your cocktail taste better.

HENDERSON: I think I have to go with that.

[PROGRAM PANELIST AMY] DICKINSON: That’s like a Dean Martin kind of question.

HENDERSON: It is, absolutely.

SAGAL: It is a Dean Martin kind of question.

DICKINSON: Can I weigh in? It doesn’t…

HENDERSON: Yeah, help me out here.

DICKINSON: I don’t know. Think that sounds wasteful. What was the second one?

HENDERSON: Blowing a fan is going to help global warming.

SAGAL: Yeah, that sounds ridiculous.

DICKINSON: That’s kind of crazy. And the other one was the…

SAGAL: The last one was how reindeer behave when they’re approached by humans wearing polar bear suits.

DICKINSON: I’m liking that one. I’m liking that one.


HENDERSON: Oh. I think I have to stay with A.


SAGAL: Really? I want to point out you may not know this, but Amy is an advice columnist.

HENDERSON: Oh, Amy. My gosh, yeah, I like three. I like number three.

SAGAL: There we go. Yes, you’re right.


SAGAL: It turns out – and this is again according to this very scientific study – that reindeer are kind of freaked out when people dressed as polar bears approach them. All right, Florence, get this one right, you win.

The Public Health Prize went to a team that tried to determine if doing what was detrimental to your mental health? Is it A, trying to get your cable hooked up; B, playing the computer game Candy Crush; or C, owning a cat?



BLOUNT: I own a cat.

HENDERSON: It’s bad for your mental health.


BLOUNT: And Roy just said he owns a cat, which to me is sort of proof right there.


DICKINSON: That’s true.

HENDERSON: Well, all right, let’s go with number three.

SAGAL: You’re going to go with number three, owning a cat?


SAGAL: Yes, that’s right.


SAGAL: So they published a number of studies that involve various things like parasites that cats sometimes have, but the short answer is yes, cats make you crazy.


SAGAL: Bill, how did Florence Henderson do in our quiz?

KURTIS: Well, Florence and Amy got two out of three.

DICKINSON: Thank you.


SAGAL: Florence Henderson was, is and always will be America’s favorite TV mom. Florence Henderson, what fun to have you. Thank you so much…

BONUS: The Professor from Gilligan’s Island took part in the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony (in 1993)

Further findings in the matter of Stronzo Bestiale

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

Vito Tartamella, in Parolacce, his blog about science and profanity, provides further information in the matter of Stronzo Bestiale (the question of the existence of whom we wrote about a few days ago, prompted by a report in Retraction Watch). Tarmatella’s Stronzo Bestiale report begins:

Would you read a paper written by Stronzo Bestiale (Total Asshole)? A dose of mistrust would be justified: the name says it all. Yet, in 1987, professor Bestiale, supposedly a physicist in Palermo,Sicily, authored major papers in prestigious scientific peer reviewed journals such as the  Journal of Statistical Physics, the Journal of Chemical Physics and the proceedings of a meeting of American Physical Society in Monterey.


Given that surnames always intrigued me (they are the subject of my first book), I tried to find thisperson in Italian telephone directories. In Italy there are 7 Bestiale, mostly in Piedmont. None of them, however, has the name Stronzo (Turd or a Asshole: who would call their own son that?);between the Veneto and Trentino-Alto Adige there are 4 Stronziero, but this is also a surname.

In fact, Stronzo Bestiale does not exist as confirmed, when those scientific papers were published 27 years ago, by the then Chancellor of the University of Palermo, Ignazio Melisenda Giambertoni(another unusual surname!).

So I decided to investigate more thoroughly….

(Thanks to investigator Scott Langill for bringing this to our attention.)

On the existence of Stronzo Bestiale

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is one of the many studies credited to co-author Stronzo Bestiale:

Diffusion in a periodic Lorentz gas,” Bill Moran, William G. Hoover [pictured here], and Stronzo Bestiale, Journal of Statistical Physics , vol. 48, no. 3-4 (1987): 709-726.

The Retraction Watch blog explains about Stronzo Bestiale:

Should papers be retracted if one of the authors is a total asshole?

When science writer Vito Tartamella noticed a physics paper co-authored by Stronzo Bestiale (which means “total asshole” in Italian) he did what anyone who’s written a book on surnames would do: He looked it up in the phonebook.

What he found was a lot more complicated than a funny name.

It turns out Stronzo Bestiale doesn’t exist.

In 1987, Lawrence Livermore National Lab physicist William G. Hoover had a paper on molecular dynamics rejected by two journals the Journal of Statistical Physics. So he added Stronzo Bestiale to the list of co-authors, changed the name, and resubmitted the paper. The Journal of Statistical Physics accepted it.

27 years later, Bestiale is still listed as co-author on several papers….

BONUS (possibly related): “On the Existence of Mikhailov