Archive for 'News about research'

How to ‘cheat’ at sport without really ‘cheating’ – part 3: Grunting

Monday, October 24th, 2016

Our previous Improbable article in this series examined the use of placebos – we now look at grunting. Though several sports tolerate (or even encourage) grunting as part of normal play, some have complained that it can be used as a deliberate and unfair distraction of one’s opponent(s). With regard to tennis for example, see: A Preliminary Investigation Regarding the Effect of Tennis Grunting: Does White Noise During a Tennis Shot Have a Negative Impact on Shot Perception? by S Sinnett, A Kingstone – PloS one, 2010.

“There is a growing chorus of critics who complain that many of the top-ranked professional tennis players who grunt when they hit the ball gain an unfair advantage because the sound of the grunt interferes with their opponent’s game.


Our data suggest that a grunting player has a competitive edge on the professional tennis tour.“

Although the global tennis authorities don’t (as far as Improbable can ascertain) have any specific rules relating to the distractions of grunting, some local associations have crafted their own code of conduct. See for example rule 36 of the Newbury and District Lawn Tennis Association, UK [.doc format]

“36. Grunting. A player should avoid grunting and making other loud noises. Grunting and other loud noises may bother not only opponents but also players on adjacent courts. In an extreme case, an opponent or a player on an adjacent court may seek the assistance of the Referee or a Roving Umpire. The Referee or official may treat grunting and the making of loud noises as a hindrance. Depending upon the circumstance, this could result in a let or loss of point. “

This concludes our short Improbable series on how to ‘cheat’ at sport without really ‘cheating’.

Bonus assignment [optional]: In which (if any) of the following competitive sports/games should grunting be banned? [give reasons].

•Pole vault •Curling• Synchronized swimming •Chess •Shooting •Golf •Tiddlywinks •Dressage

Multiple personalities in the Watson vs. Crick strand controversy

Sunday, October 23rd, 2016

Dan Gaur, a member of the Luxuriant Former Hair Club for Scientists (LFHCfS), and a colleague published a paper on the (little-known) Watson-Crick controversy:

The Multiple Personalities of Watson and Crick Strands,” Reed A. Cartwright and Dan Graur, Biology Direct, vol. 6, no. 7, 2011. The authors, at the University of Houston, explain:

“Background: In genetics it is customary to refer to double-stranded DNA as containing a ‘Watson strand’ and a ‘Crick strand.’ However, there seems to be no consensus in the literature on the exact meaning of these two terms, and the many usages contradict one another as well as the original definition. Here, we review the history of the terminology and suggest retaining a single sense that is currently the most useful and consistent.”

Here’s detail from the study:


BONUS: Here’s a short video documentary about Watson and Crick and their strands. The documentary is most notable from the apparently near-death qualities evident in the narrator’s voice:

Master bullshit analyst graduates, heads off to Yale

Friday, October 21st, 2016

The University of Waterloo celebrated the graduation of Gordon Pennycook, who last month, together with his colleagues, was awarded the Ig Nobel Peace Prize. The university writes:


Psych scholar whose research gained global attention graduates
Gordon Pennycook published research on everything from BS to how smartphone use is linked to lazy thinking. Now he’s on a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University

…Pennycook, who graduates this week with a doctorate in psychology from Waterloo, is currently at Yale University on a prestigious Banting postdoctoral fellowship. He will receive the Alumni Gold Medal for outstanding academic achievement at Waterloo’s 113th convocation ceremonies taking place on Friday October 21 and Saturday October 22.

The numerous studies he led and co-authored while a graduate student explore topics such as religious belief, moral judgments and values, creativity, smartphone use, health beliefs, science communication, and bullshit receptivity. The last of these studies, titled “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit,” won a 2016 Ig Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to Pennycook and his co-authors just last month at Harvard University.

“We are not nearly as good at detecting bullshit as we think,” wrote Pennycook in a non-academic online publication.

The BS paper attracted plenty of media coverage and interviews, most recently on the current US election….

How to ‘cheat’ at sport without really ‘cheating’ – part 2: Placebos

Friday, October 21st, 2016

cblargeIn the previous item in this series Improbable looked at the question of whether ‘praying to win’ at sports might be ‘unsporting’. One aspect (which wasn’t mentioned) is a possible scenario whereby those who pray to win might gain an advantage by a kind-of ‘Divine Placebo’ effect – that’s to say they might try just that little-bit-harder believing that their God is on their side (irrespective of whether their God exists, and, if so, responds to their request). In contrast to ‘pray to win’, there is a considerable body of published academic research into placebo effects in sport. An overview was provided by Dr Christopher Beedie [pictured] and colleague Abigail Foad at Canterbury Christ Church University Canterbury, UK : ‘The Placebo Effect in Sports Performance A Brief Review’ in: Sports Medicine, 39(4):313-29.

The team describe previous studies which found (for example) that sub-elite runners who thought they were drinking ‘super oxygenated water’ ran 8.0% faster. Sub-elite weight lifters who believed they were getting doses of anabolic steroids managed 9.5% more weight than a control group. And untrained students performing leg-presses and who were under the impression that they were taking a special blend of ‘amino acids’ performed a stonking 9.6% more effectively.

Since the paper was published (2009), two subsequent studies have added to the literature :

(Study 1) Relates that 47% of athletes have experienced placebo effects in the past, and 67% wouldn’t mind a placebo-linked deception if it was effective, and :

(Study 2) Which described how 44% of professional coaches admitted to administering a placebo to their athletes.

Coming soon: How to ‘cheat’ at sport without really ‘cheating’ – part 3

Shadows Cast by Spider Legs, Used in Physics Calculations

Thursday, October 20th, 2016

Anticipating Halloween, the American Chemical Society has published a study about using the shadows cast by (kinda sorta) spider legs, for scientific purposes. The paper is:

Elegant Shadow Making Tiny Force Visible for Water-Walking Arthropods and Updated Archimedes’ Principle,” Yelong Zheng, Hongyu Lu, Wei Yin, Dashuai Tao, Lichun Shi, and Yu Tian, Langmuir, 2016, 32 (41), pp. 10522–10528.  The authors, at Tsinghua University, China, report:


“Forces acted on legs of water-walking arthropods with weights in dynes are of great interest for entomologist, physicists, and engineers. While their floating mechanism has been recognized, the in vivo leg forces stationary have not yet been simultaneously achieved. In this study, their elegant bright-edged leg shadows are used to make the tiny forces visible and measurable based on the updated Archimedes’ principle. The force was approximately proportional to the shadow area with a resolution from nanonewton to piconewton/pixel. The sum of leg forces agreed well with the body weight measured with an accurate electronic balance, which verified updated Archimedes’ principle at the arthropod level”

(Thanks to Tony Tweedale for bringing this to our attention.)

BONUS: An earlier study that used shadow calculation: the MIT study “The hydrodynamics of water-walking arthropods“, by Ig Nobel Prize winner David Hu, and John Bush. Here’s a bit of detail from that study: