Archive for 'Newspaper column'

The newspaper column: moving on…

Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

After 13 happy years as a columnist at The Guardian newspaper, I’ve stopped. It was a joy and a privilege working with the editors there.

ThisIsImprobable-book(You can read all those old columns — more than 500 of them — on the Guardian web site, and find links and bits of extra information here on the Improbable site. Some of those columns were collected and enhanced into two books: This Is Improbable, and This Is Improbable Too.)

The newly freed-up writing time will let me play with new things: in the Improbable Research podcast; in the magazine (which we are transitioning into the new PDF era!); in Ig Nobel Prize activities; in some new projects; and in speaking gigs (do feel free to invite me to talk at your meeting, conference, or whatever!).

The Tradition of Shoe-Throwing at Weddings

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Shoe-throwing may now be mostly a political act. But not long ago, it was a common rite of marriage, writes James Crombie of Aberdeen, who has gathered some matrimonial footwear-hurling facts into a 24-page treatise called Shoe-Throwing at Weddings.

This was in 1895, when readers may have empathised with Crombie’s opening thought: “Pelting a bride and bridegroom with old shoes when they start on their honeymoon is a custom we are all familiar with, and in which many of us have participated.”

Some 113 years later, in 2008, Muntazer al-Zaidi recategorised the social role of shoe-throwing when he hurled size-10 shoes, and some words (“This is your farewell kiss, you dog”), at US president George W Bush at a press conference in Baghdad….

So begins this month’s Improbable Research column in The Guardian.

Here’s video of the press-conference shoe-throwing:

BONUS: Another shoe-throwing video (thanks to SciCurious for bringing it to our attention):


The Great Attempt to Catalog All Fetishes (including the pacemaker fetish)

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015

scorolliOn 28 October 2004 we humans took a giant step towards cataloguing all of our sexual fetishes. An Italian/Swedish research team, led by Claudia Scorolli [pictured here] at the University of Bologna, downloaded data from hundreds of online fetish discussion groups and spent the next three years analysing their haul. Then they published a study in the International Journal of Impotence Research: Relative Prevalence of Different Fetishes….

So begins this month’s Improbable Research column in The Guardian.

* * *

BONUS: Here’s a piece of info that did not appear  (because the column has to fit into a set space in the print edition of The Guardian) in the published version of the column:

Two of the fetish study’s co-authors, Stefano Ghirlanda and Magnus Enquist, had been awarded an Ig Nobel Prize in 2003, for a study called “Chickens Prefer Beautiful Humans“, which was not about fetishes.

Be still my beating heart … smashed fingers, battered shins and fake murder

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

If you (yup, you) use a fake weapon to brutally beat a stranger, and then slit his throat, and then shoot him in the face, and then you assault a little baby, will your heart and blood pump like mad — even if you know that it’s all a trick and the man will suffer no harm and the baby is just a life-like doll? An American experiment sought an answer to that question.

You can read about it in a study called Simulating Murder: the Aversion to Harmful Action, published in the journal Emotion. The authors, Fiery Cushman [pictured below, with colleagues from his lab], Kurt Gray, Allison Gaffey and Wendy Berry Mendes, are respectively at Harvard University, the University of Maryland, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of California, San Francisco.

So begins this month’s Improbable Research column in The Guardian.


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