Archive for 'Improbable investigators'

Podcast #30: Head on Brain in Brain

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

Dr. Head and Dr. Brain, and the medical journal they edited (which is called Brain); kids with televisions; the peculiar faces of corporate leaders; and the medical maladies called “cello scrotum” and “guitar nipple” — all these all turn up in this week’s Improbable Research podcast.

Click on the “Venetian blinds” icon — at the lower right corner here — to select whichever week’s episode you want to hear:

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This week, Marc Abrahams tells about:

The mysterious John Schedler or the shadowy Bruce Petschek perhaps did the sound engineering this week.

The Improbable Research podcast is all about research that makes people LAUGH, then THINK — real research, about anything and everything, from everywhere —research that may be good or bad, important or trivial, valuable or worthless. CBS distributes it, both on the new CBS web site, and on iTunes and Spotify).

Karen Brown’s appreciation of Joe (teapot/ponytail) Keller

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

Karen Brown visited two-time (1999 and 2012) Ig Nobel physics prize winner Joseph Keller, and wrote about it, on the Etsy blog. Here is the beginning of her essay:

The Teapot Effect: Why Teapots Drip


Joseph B. Keller is an immensely distinguished scientist. Professor Emeritus in engineering and mathematics at Stanford University, he may be known best for the Geometrical Theory of Diffraction and the Einstein–Brillouin–Keller method.

karen_brown_biopicnew1“But his major work – honored with awards that include the National Medal of Science and the Wolf Prize – might not fully convey Dr. Keller’s sense of playful enthusiasm and perpetual curiosity.

What sparks the curiosity of a man who has attended lectures with Einstein and partied at Heisenberg’s house? For one, Joseph Keller is into teapots. Really into teapots. In fact, he is the world’s recognized expert on why teapots drip.

“Like many of us, Dr. Keller had long observed the pesky problem of that little bit of tea that always seems to run down the outside of the spout and drip into our laps. “Then, in 1956, I heard a lecture,” he told me. “An Israeli scientist reported he asked 100 physicists why teapots drip and they all said it was due to surface tension. This scientist did some experiments that proved it couldn’t be caused by surface tension, so what is the explanation? I wrote a paper, ‘The Teapot Effect,’ shortly thereafter, showing that the effect occurred through fluid and mechanical forces.


May: Wee

Tuesday, September 15th, 2015

To wee, or not to wee? Oui? Non? Maybe? This medical report addresses all those questions:

Differential Diagnosis: Urination Disorders,” F. May, Medizinische Klinik (Munich, Germany: 1983) 47, no. 14 (1952): 441.

Congratulations: The Duck Guy will become the museum director

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015

Congratulations to Kees Moeliker, “the duck guy”, who on December 1 will become director of the Natuurhistorisch Museum Rotterdam, where he is currently curator. Congratulations also to Jelle Reumer, the museum’s current director, who has become a full professor at Utrecht University.

Kees was awarded the 2003 Ig Nobel Prize for biology, for documenting the first scientifically recorded case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck. Kees is also Improbable Research’s European Bureau Chief. Here, in case you have not seen it, is Kees’s TED Talk about the duck:

BONUS: An interview in de Volkskrant.

How Do Bumps Form in Carpets?

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015

We’ve all had this experience: we are walking on a carpet, and we suddenly trip over an annoying bump (or “ruck”) that we didn’t know was there. So how did it form?

My colleagues Alpha Lee, Clément Le Goullec, and Dominic Vella from the Mathematical Institute at University of Oxford have just posted a new paper that endeavors to explain an apparent paradox in the formation of carper rucks.

As the authors write in their abstract:

Everyday experience suggests that a ‘ruck’ forms when the two ends of a heavy carpet or rug are brought closer together. Classical analysis, however, shows that the horizontal compressive force needed to create such a ruck should be infinite. We show that this apparent paradox is due to the assumption of inextensibility of the rug. By accounting for a finite extensibility, we show that rucks appear with a finite, non-zero end-shortening and confirm our theoretical results with simple experiments. Finally, we note that the appropriate measure of extensibility, the stretchability, is in this case not determined purely by geometry, but incorporates the mechanics of the sheet.

Figure 1 from the paper by Lee et al.