Archive for 'Improbable investigators'

Happy words from painful insect stings [podcast 64]

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016

Justin Schmidt, an emotional fellow, took notes when he was notably stung by a different species of ant, bee, or wasp. Schmidt then turned those notes and emotions into little almost-poems, each just 15 or 20 words long. Those sting-pain notes and emotions, read aloud by QI elves, overflow this week’s Improbable Research podcast.

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This week, Marc Abrahams  — with dramatic readings by James Harkin, Dan Schreiber, Anne Miller, Steve Colgan, and Alex Bell (elves from QI, the Museum of Curiosity, No Such Thing As a Fish, and No Such Thing As the News) — tells about:

  • Justin Schmidt‘s book, which includes the Schmidt Sting Pain Index with the poetical descriptions — The Sting of the Wild, by Justin O. Schmidt, Johns Hopkins Press, 2016. ISBN: 9781421419282.sting-wild-420pix
  • A short video, by his university, about Justin Schmidt:
  • A fan video, by the San Diego Natural History Museum, about Justin Schmidt and the Schmidt Sting Pain Index:

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, on the CBS web site, and on iTunes and Spotify).

We live in the Era of Billionaire-Scientifical-Superheroes

Thursday, April 14th, 2016

We are fortunate* to live in the Era of Billionaire-Scientifical-Superheroes. Here are recent press reports about a five of them.

As in many walks of life, there is a dramatic gender imbalance in this emerging field. The Billionaire Scientifical-Superheroes gender imbalance may be growing worse (see “Regulators Propose Banning Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes for at Least Two Years“, reported in the Wall Street Journal).

(*Some analysts argue that we are fortunate to live at all.)

Algorithmic Distinguishing of Novelists from their Punctuation Patterns

Saturday, March 19th, 2016

Adam J. Calhoun has written a wonderful blog entry that illustrates, with some great data visualization, that it is possible to algorithmically distinguish different novelists based only on  their punctuation habits.

The idea is simple: just remove all words from a corpus of text and look at the patterns of the punctuation. Here is an illustration.

Punctuation in (left) "Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy and (right) "Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner"

Punctuation in (left) “Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy and (right) “Absalom, Absalom!” by William Faulkner


I’ll now punctuate this blog entry with Calhoun’s description of the poignant differences in this illustration:

In fact, they can be quite distinct. Take my all-time favorite book, Absalom, Absalom!by William Faulkner. It is dense prose stuffed with parentheticals. When placed next to a novel with more simplified prose — Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy — it is a stark difference (see above).

Calhoun has made his code freely available, so you can try this for yourself. Hmmm… I wonder if we can gain some insights into the different writing styles of different scientists this way?

(Tip of the hat to the folks at the Santa Fe Institute for bringing this story to our attention.)

The Acoustics of Breaking Chopsticks

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

What are the acoustics of breaking a bamboo chopstick?

According to a new paper by physicist Tzay-Ming Hong and his colleagues at National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan, it’s kind of like the acoustics of breaking a bundle spaghetti: they both apparently resemble the Gutenberg–Richter scaling law, which relates earthquake magnitude to the frequency of earthquakes with at least that magnitude. Similar relations hold for crackling noise in acoustic emissions from a variety of sources (e.g., fracturing rock, paper, and charcoal). So it’s not exactly the sound of the atom splitting (as far as we know), but it’s still rather impressive.

Here is an excerpt from the authors’ abstract:

By the use of a force-sensing detector, we establish a positive correlation between the statistics of sound intensity and the magnitude of a tremor. We also manage to derive these laws analytically without invoking the concept of a phase transition, self-organized criticality, or fractal. Our model is deterministic and relies on the existence of a structured cross section, either fibrous or layered. This success at explaining the power-law behavior supports the proposal that geometry is sometimes more important than mechanics.

Personally, I’m very pleased that the authors derived their results without having to invoke self-organized criticality. Here is the first figure from the authors’ paper.



New Mathematical Model Helps Explain the Strength of Interleaved Phonebooks

Saturday, January 9th, 2016

Phonebooks made of paper have been going out of style, but they are still of interest to physicists. A few years ago, an episode of Mythbusters explored the strength of interleaved phone books. (Also see the sequel in Mythbusters, or maybe even try it yourself.)

First, some context, in case you are a child of the 21st century, and so perhaps have no personal experience with paper telephone books, which could be hefty. Here’s an old TV advertisement for “the yellow pages”, a telephone directory listing businesses and their telephone numbers:

Now experiments and an accompanying mathematical model have been published in Physical Review Letters by a team of physicists. Frédéric Restagno of the University of Paris-Sud and CNRS in Orsay and his colleagues measured the force needed to separate interleaved pairs of books with between 12 and 100 pages, and they developed a mathematical model based on simple geometric and mechanical ideas to explain the impressive strength of interleaved books.



Figure 1 from the article “Self-Amplification of Solid Friction in Interleaved Assemblies” by Héctor Alarcón, Thomas Salez, Christophe Poulard, Jean-Francis Bloch, Élie Raphaël, Kari Dalnoki-Veress, and Frédéric Restagno


The strength of the interleaved books arises because the book-separating force on each page is applied at a slight angle, and this increases the perpendicular force and hence the friction of each page. Restagno and colleagues also fit the data to a curve of force versus a dimensionless amplification parameter –– following the continuum-mechanics tradition of using cute names for dimensionless parameters, let’s call it the “Hercules number” –– that depends on the number of pages, the page thickness, and the size of the overlap region between the books.

Not very closely related: Another fascinating dimensionless parameter is the “Repunzel number” from research on ponytail physics, which earned the 2012 Ig Nobel Prize in Physics.