Archive for 'Improbable investigators'

Marty Perl is gone

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

Reports bring the sad news that Marty Perl died.

Here’s a look back a decade and a half. This is the beginning of Lila Guterman’s 1998 article in the Stanford Report about one of Marty’s smallest improbable adventures:

A paper airplane whizzed through the air and hit Stanford Nobel laureate Martin Perl in the head before he answered the first question in an interview Wednesday evening, April 8. He and fellow SLAC Nobelist Richard Taylor were grilled about chewing gum in front of an audience of 200 people in Stanford’s Terman Auditorium.

Their interviewer was Marc Abrahams, editor of the irreverent science magazine The Annals of Improbable Research. Abrahams was at Stanford to promote the new book, The Best of Annals of Improbable Research. The result was an evening of silly science.

Abrahams chomped on gum as they discussed the lofty topic, and he offered the two Nobelists their own sticks.

“How often do you chew gum?” Abrahams asked them.

“Whenever I get a bad idea,” said Perl, munching away.

“Same,” responded Taylor. “Never.”

The airplane-throwing audience laughed upon learning that Perl uses gum to stick his telephone to his desk and to plug vacuum leaks. But Taylor adamantly denied using chewing gum. “I’m more used to bubble gum,” he said….

This photo shows the three of us that night. Marty Perl is at right, examining his gum. Dick Taylor, who insisted on being identified as “Laureate X”, is the one in the middle with his face obscured.

abrahams - taylor - perl 1998

BONUS: It’s now 2014, and chewing gum is again of heightened interest to the research community.

Dung beetle Ig winner hailed in his home country

Monday, September 29th, 2014

The University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg issued this press report:

Two Witsies among World Class SAs

26 September 2014

Wits University Professors Lee Berger and Marcus Byrne have been included in the 2014 edition of City Press’ 100 World Class South Africans that was released online on Heritage Day, 24 September 2014.

“This is a collection of South Africans who have staked a claim to greatness not only on our shores, but abroad as well,” said City Press Editor-in-Chief, Ferial Haffajee. Launched in 2013, the series is a celebration of 100 living South Africans who have achieved world-class status through global recognition of their work in arts, sciences, business, fashion and design, civil society and sports. It is a way to acknowledge the sacrifices of the past, the achievements of the present and the goals of the future and is intended to evoke a feeling of national pride, Haffajee added….

byrneFor his quirky and exception work on dung beetles, Byrnehas been included in the Newsmakers & Shapeshifterscategory. He is a professor of zoology and entomology in the Wits School of Animals, Plants and Environmental Sciences. Last year he won the Ig Nobel Prize, awarded every year at Harvard University in recognition of illustrious (and often eccentric) people whose research first makes one laugh, then makes one think. Byrne and his team won for dressing up dung beetles in designer gear and putting them under the simulated night sky at the Joburg Planetarium to show how they use the Milky Way as a compass to orientate themselves.

Haffajee said this year’s edition is an inspiring picture of those who are “building a legacy for our land, harvesting the life lessons of the good and great among us. If we are to achieve our potential as a nation then we must strive to be a world-class nation.”

The 2013 Ig Nobel Prize jointly for biology and astronomy was awarded to Marie Dacke [SWEDEN, AUSTRALIA], Emily Baird [SWEDEN, AUSTRALIA, GERMANY], Marcus Byrne [SOUTH AFRICA, UK], Clarke Scholtz[SOUTH AFRICA], and Eric J. Warrant [SWEDEN, AUSTRALIA, GERMANY], for discovering that when dung beetles get lost, they can navigate their way home by looking at the Milky Way. [REFERENCE: "Dung Beetles Use the Milky Way for Orientation," Marie Dacke, Emily Baird, Marcus Byrne, Clarke H. Scholtz, Eric J. Warrant, Current Biology, epub January 24, 2013.]

(Thanks to investigator Gwinyai Masukume for bringing this to our attention.)

A neutral observer reports on her first Ig Nobel ceremony

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

What’s it feel like to attend your first Ig Nobel Prize ceremony? You’ll not find a better account than this: Cristine Russell wrote about her night at the Igs, for Scientific American. Russell begins:

Ig Nobel Prizes Make You Laugh, Then Think
By Cristine Russell | September 23, 2014

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—What happens in the brains of people who see Jesus in a piece of toast? What are the physics of slipping on a banana peel? Are people who see an ugly painting more pain-sensitive than if they see a beautiful one? How do reindeer react to humans disguised as polar bears? Oh, and have you wondered if defecating dogs are sensitive to changes in the Earth’s magnetic fields?

The recent ceremony for the Ig Nobel Prizes at Harvard’s regal Sanders Theatre answered these questions—and many more—in a sold-out spoof in which good-humored scientists made light of their own work and real Nobel laureates wearing silly hats handed out the awards. “Moments of Science” offered goofy on-stage lab experiments; “What’s Eating You,” a three-act mini-opera mocking today’s pill-popping culture, had its world premiere; and, at two designated breaks, the very enthusiastic 1,100-member audience deluged the stage with handmade paper airplanes. Think Monty Python on science steroids.

This intercontinental, if not intergalactic, event—now available on You Tube—is guaranteed to put a smile on even the most serious face and to change the oft-dreary public stereotype of science and scientists.

Student journalist Ray Wang, too, was attending his first Ig. Wang wrote it up for MIT’s The Tech.

The Amazing Science blogger, also, was a first-time attendee, in the balcony, and wrote and photo-documented the experience.

You can see a few other accounts of the Ig, on our Press Clips page, and a rough overview on the blog item called “Up the nose: Press reports about the Ig Nobel Prizes“.

BONUS (added later): Journalist Judith Lavelle reports on her visit to the Ig Informal Lectures.

A past Ig Nobel winner recounts the glory (or whatever)

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

Laurent Bègue, who a year ago was (together with his colleagues) awarded the 2013 Ig Nobel Prize for psychology, recounts the experience. He writes, in the Huffington Post:

Le jour où j’ai reçu un IG Nobel

begueL’université américaine de Harvard décerne chaque année les LG Nobel. Ces prix récompensent des scientifiques dont les travaux font “rire, puis réfléchir”. Laurent Bègue, professeur à l’université de Grenoble et lauréat 2013, revient sur son expérience un an après.

Le message que j’ai trouvé dans ma boîte électronique, ce 14 avril 2013, était plus énigmatique que la moyenne. En tant qu’enseignant-chercheur à l’université, les courriels que je reçois sont parfois inattendus ou sibyllins (comme savent l’être les étudiants, sans parler de certains collègues) mais celui-ci l’était particulièrement: «Pourrions-nous avoir une conversation strictement confidentielle (par email ou téléphone) au sujet de votre article publié récemment dans le “British Journal of Psychology”». L’auteur de ce message matinal, un certain Kees Moeliker, se présentait comme le représentant européen du « bureau des recherches improbables ». Après avoir Gogglelisé le patronyme néerlandais de mon mystérieux correspondant, deux informations ressortaient : ce monsieur était ornithologiste à Rotterdam, et il avait été distingué pour ses travaux sur la nécrophilie homosexuelle chez le canard colvert.

Le ton était donné. J’apprenais qu’un récent papier sur l’effet placebo de l’alcool sur la perception de soi, publié avec plusieurs collègues de Paris, Grenoble et de l’université de l’Ohio, allait nous valoir un IG nobel (contraction de “Nobel” et de l’adjectif “ignoble”), prix redoutable quoique convoité et décerné annuellement depuis plus de vingt ans à l’université de Harvard à dix chercheurs de toutes disciplines dont les travaux font « rire les gens au premier abord, et ensuite les font réfléchir »….

Sortable database of Ig Nobel Prize Winners

Saturday, September 13th, 2014

There’s now an elegant, sortable database of Ig Nobel Prize Winners. It’s made in Silk – a platform for visualizing and sharing data. Silk says that it is:

…a way to search through and filter all the Ig Nobel prizes and find strange correlations (but not necessarily causations) such as: “prize winners that contain the words ‘beer’ and ‘sex'”. The database will be built and organized with Silk’s data-publishing platform.

All 23 years of Ig Nobel winners are included (very soon it will have 24 years of data). We hope this will be a useful tool for understanding which countries have won the most Ig Nobel Peace Prizes, or which Ig Nobel Prizes have been awarded to researchers in or from Norway.

Ig® Nobel Peace Prize Winners, grouped by Country

Ig® Nobel Prize Winners with Norway as Country, grouped by Prize Category

SAN FRANCISCO BONUS: Silk and WeWork are hosting an Ig Nobel Watching Party in San Fransisco on Thursday September 18th. (Public welcome, but space is limited)

BONUS: Facts And Details has a page devoted Japanese Nobel and Ig Nobel Prize winners. We applaud all attempts to find patterns and groupings in our published Ig data.

SPECIAL * SPECIAL * SPECIAL BONUS: 2010 Ig Nobel Management Prize winner Andrea Rapisarda, working independently in Italy, made their own nifty app of Ig Nobel Prize winners. You can get it free on iTunes.