Archive for 'Improbable investigators'

Quantifying the Smell of Urban Areas

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

Data analysis has led to numerous insights into a diverse variety of complex systems. A new paper that gives a whiff of such insights is The Emotional and Chromatic Layers of Urban Smells by Daniele Quercia of Bell Labs, Luca Maria Aiello of Yahoo Labs, and Rossano Schifanella of University of Turin.

Quercia et al. write the following in their abstract:

People are able to detect up to 1 trillion odors. Yet, city planning is concerned only with a few bad odors, mainly because odors are currently captured only through complaints made by urban dwellers. To capture both good and bad odors, we resort to a methodology that has been recently proposed and relies on tagging information of geo-referenced pictures. In doing so for the cities of London and Barcelona, this work makes three new contributions. We study 1) how the urban smellscape changes in time and space; 2) which emotions people share at places with specific smells; and 3) what is the color of a smell, if it exists. Without social media data, insights about those three aspects have been dicult to produce in the past, further delaying the creation of urban restorative experiences.

As we can see from this work, no matter whether one is spending time in London or in Barcelona, a city by any other name would smell just as… uh, sweet. And perhaps be associated with just as much joy, trust, anticipation, or surprise?

urban-smells-fig12

A figure from the paper by Quercia et al. that examines the correlation between various types of emotions and various types of smells.

Clearly, this is research that we need to savor.

The senator whose method is: Make people LAUGH, NOT THINK

Tuesday, May 31st, 2016

U.S. Senator Jeff Flake has appropriated and dismembered our basic goal and method, which is to make people LAUGH, and then THINK. The senator lopped off the “think” part, to produce his own basic goal and method: to make people Laugh, and NOT think. You can see this on display in Senator Flake’s recent colorful press release and booklet, which ridicules scientific research.

We invented the phrase “make people LAUGH, then THINK”. It’s the essence of our magazine, the Annals of Improbable Research. It’s the essence of the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, which we administer, and which is now in its 26th year. Each year ten Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded for achievements that make people LAUGH, then THINK. Much of the research ridiculed in Senator Flake’s booklet has won Ig Nobel Prizes.

Senator Flake's booklet

Senator Flake’s booklet

Senator Flake’s Cartoon Book

Senator Flake’s press release says: “U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) today released Twenty Questions: Government Studies That Will Leave you Scratching Your Head, an oversight report highlighting 20 hard-to-justify, taxpayer-funded studies that diverted more than $35 million that could have been better spent researching treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and viral infections such as Zika and Ebola….”

Senator Flake’s booklet uses a cartoon style that’s usually meant to appeal to small children. You can download a copy of the the booklet by clicking on the image here.

Hard to Justify

The studies mentioned in Senator Flake’s booklet really are, as Senator Flake says, “hard-to-justify” — if, like Senator Flake, you insist on not justifying them.

Senator Flake and Einstein

Senator Flake’s booklet builds, it says, on the work of Einstein:

“The important thing is not to stop questioning,” urged Albert Einstein, one of the greatest minds of all time. That’s great advice for taxpayers.

Here’s what Senator Flake’s booklet does not mention: Einstein would ask lots of funny questions, and then Einstein would work to FIND THE ANSWERS to those questions.

Senator Flake’s funny booklet just asks a funny question, then laughs, then asks some other funny question, then laughs, then asks some other funny question, and so on, and so on.

Senator Flake’s booklet asks 20 questions. About one third of those questions concern research that was honored with Ig Nobel Prizes, or scientists who earned Ig Nobel Prizes for other research.

Senator Flake’s BIG RED DOLLAR AMOUNTS

Senator Flake’s booklet uses a technique that makes things appear horribly expensive. The table of contents lists a BIG RED DOLLAR AMOUNT next to each research item. You might mistakenly think that that this BIG RED DOLLAR AMOUNT is what the research item cost. You would be wrong. The booklet diligently explains — on a different page, in small, dense text — that the BIG RED DOLLAR AMOUNT is just a BIG RED DOLLAR AMOUNT:

METHODOLOGY. Specific dollar amounts expended to support each study were not available for the projects profiled in this report. Most were conducted as parts of more extensive research funded with government grants or financial support. The costs provided, therefore, represent the total amount of the grant or grants from which the study was supported and not the precise amount spent on the individual studies. This is not intended to imply or suggest other research supported by these grants was wasteful, unnecessary or without merit.

Here are some of the first items in Senator Flake’s booklet. (Each of these was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize, by the way!):

1) WHERE DOES IT HURT THE MOST TO BE STUNG BY A BEE? ($1 MILLION)

2) WHY DOES WALKING WITH COFFEE CAUSE IT TO SPILL? ($172,000)

7) WHY DOES THE FACE OF JESUS APPEAR ON TOAST? ($3.5 MILLION)

If you apply this same BIG RED DOLLAR AMOUNT technique to Senator Flake’s own booklet, here’s what you get:

SEN. FLAKE’S “TWENTY QUESTIONS” BOOKLET ($8 MILLION)

What’s It All About?

Three of the items in Senator Flake’s booklet are research performed by Professor David Hu of Georgia Tech:

7) HOW MANY SHAKES DOES IT TAKE FOR A WET DOG TO DRY OFF? ($390,000)

17) WHICH HAS MORE HAIRS, A SQUIRREL OR A BUMBLEBEE? ($753,000)

18) HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO PEE LIKE A RACE HORSE? ($331,000)

The logo of Improbable Research and of the Ig Nobel Prizes

The logo of Improbable Research and of the Ig Nobel Prizes

Professor Hu and his team were awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for that pee research. Professor Hu wrote an essay about this, for Scientific American. What he wrote will probably make you laugh, then think. We suggest you read it:

Confessions of a Wasteful Scientist

Three of my projects appeared last week on a senator’s list of questionable research. Allow me to explain

But, if you like to ridicule things because those things are unfamiliar, don’t read Professor Hu’s writing. And don’t look at the actual work of the other Ig Nobel Prize winners or any of the other people on Senator Flake’s list.

If you want to laugh, but not think, pay attention to Senator Flake.

Pedestrian Potential-Collision Standoffs, and Symmetry Breaking

Saturday, May 28th, 2016

We’ve all experienced this phenomenon: you and someone else are walking towards each other in opposite directions, and you don’t want to collide. Do you shift to the left or to the right? And how should you shift to avoid a standoff? In a new paper on the arXiv, physicists Nickolas Morton and Shaun Hendy of the Department of Physics at University of Auckland have examined this problem through the lens of statistical mechanics. Here is an excerpt from their abstract:

If both make the same choice then passing can be completed with ease, while if they make opposite choices an embarrassing stand- off or collision can occur. Pedestrians who encounter each other frequently can establish “social norms” that bias this decision. In this study we investigate the effect of binary decision-making by pedestrians when passing on the dynamics of pedestrian flows in order to study the emergence of a social norm in crowds with a mixture of individual biases. (…) We construct a phase diagram that shows that a social norm can still emerge provided pedestrians are sufficiently attentive to the choices of others in the crowd. We show that this collective behaviour has the potential to greatly influence the dynamics of pedestrians, including the breaking of symmetry by the formation of lanes.

pedestrian-fig3-excerpt-sm 

 

 

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.

SUBSCRIBE on Play.it, iTunes, or Spotify to get a new episode every week, free.

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 Play.it 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.)