Archive for 'News about research'

Sherpherd physics: Capturing a skittish lamb, using statistical physics

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

A trio of theoretical physicists have recently used ideas from statistical mechanics and probability theory to try to develop an optimal strategy for capturing a skittish lamb near a precipice.

The situation that they model is an idealization of “the capture of a diffusing, but skittish lamb, with an approaching shepherd on the left and a precipice on the right.” They approached this problem by examining first-passage probabilities, which describe the first time of some event (e.g., a lamb falling off of a cliff) occurring. The physicists summarized their strategy as follows:

In particular, the probability to capture the lamb is maximized when the shepherd moves at a non-zero optimal speed if the initial lamb position and the ratio between the two boundary speeds satisfy certain conditions.

Here’s further detail from the study:


One of the physicists, Sid Redner, works at the Santa Fe Institute, so perhaps the next problem he’ll attempt is to design a strategy to help Wile E. Coyote catch the Roadrunner.

BONUS: Redner on the question: In a pro basketball game, when is a lead safe?

Podcast #13: Telephones for animals

Wednesday, May 27th, 2015

The California inventor (and Taser Corporation advisor) of a telephone for animals and a cell phone that reaches out and shocks bad guys, borborygmi (the sounds made by your intestines), the phrase “I don’t know”, and other things turn up  in this week’s Improbable Research podcast.

LISTEN on or iTunes (or DOWNLOAD it, and listen later).
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[NEWS: Soon, the podcast will also be available on Spotify.]

[cbs-clip-player content_id=59056517 size=small station=121]

This week, Marc Abrahams tells about:


The mysterious John Schedler 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 soon, also on Spotify).

People-calculating: open doors and closed doors

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

RosenbaumWhether one person holds a door open for another is not simply a question of etiquette, says a study by Joseph P Santamaria and David A Rosenbaum [pictured here] of Pennsylvania State University. No, they say. Nothing simple about it.

Santamaria and Rosenbaum worked to pursue the answer through a tangle of belief, logic, probability, perception and calculation. Their study, Etiquette and Effort: Holding Doors for Others, was published in 2011 in the journal Psychological Science. It is, one way or another, a gripping read....

—So begins the latest Improbable Research column in The Guardian.

BONUS: This graph is from an economist’s alternative take on the question:

door open

Improbable Swedish TV: Ignobelseminarium in Stockholm

Monday, May 25th, 2015

The Swedish public television network SVT filmed the Ig Nobel show at Boulevardteatern in Stockholm on March 25, 2015. Two months later, SVT broadcasted their video of that night. It is (at least for a while) available on SVT’s UR Play web site. (Many thanks to publishers Fri tanke förlag, to Boulevardteatern, and to dapper neuroscientist Gustav Nilsonne for helping arrange the event!)

Here are links to highlights from that show (click on each image to see the video).

Sabine Begall and Pascal Malkemper tell how their team, in the Czech Republic and Germany, gathered evidence that dogs, while excreting, often align their body axis with earth’s north-south magnetic field lines:


Jaroslav Flegr, of the Czech Republic, tells how he and others learned more about the question of whether it is mentally hazardous to own a cat.


Andrea Rapisarda tells how he and his colleagues in Italy discovered that, for most organizations, promotions produce the best results if people are promoted at random.


Dr. Nakamats, with perhaps the most unusual wrapup musical performance ever given anywhere, tells about his more than 3500 patents, and his upcoming final birthday party in Japan:





Some people prefer orange skin

Monday, May 25th, 2015

Having or making your skin be orange-colored can help make some persons more attractive than other persons, to certain persons, for mating purposes, suggests this study:

perrettFruit over sunbed: Carotenoid skin colouration is found more attractive than melanin colouration,” Carmen E. Lefevre and David I. Perrett [pictured here], Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, vol. 68, no. 2, 2015. (Thanks to Neil Martin for bringing this to our attention.) the authors, at Leeds University, Northumberland University, and the Unviversity of St. Andrews, UK, explain:

“Skin colouration appears to play a pivotal part in facial attractiveness. Skin yellowness contributes to an attractive appearance and is influenced both by dietary carotenoids and by melanin. While both increased carotenoid colouration and increased melanin colouration enhance apparent health in Caucasian faces by increasing skin yellowness, it remains unclear, firstly, whether both pigments contribute to attractiveness judgements, secondly, whether one pigment is clearly preferred over the other, and thirdly, whether these effects depend on the sex of the face….

“We show that carotenoid colouration is consistently preferred over melanin colouration when levels of colouration are matched. In addition, we find an effect of the sex of stimuli with stronger preferences for carotenoids over melanin in female compared to male faces, irrespective of the sex of the observer…. Taken together, our findings provide further support for a carotenoid-linked health-signalling system that is highly important in mate choice….

“In Western countries, tanning is popular and tanned skin is seen as attractive (Smith, Cornelissen, & Tovée, 2007), perhaps because it indicates status and wealth (ability to spend time tanning and holidaying; see Etcoff, 1999).”

BONUS (possibly unrelated): A new way to amplify narcissism