Archive for 'Newspaper column'

Bird-feather counters exhibited pluck, tediously

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014
hat with feathers 1910

Feathers, on a hat on a person, circa 1910. Photo: Library of Congress.

Many humans have spent days, months or years counting feathers. Here are exciting highlights from some of their reports.

In 1936 Alexander Wetmore, of the US National Museum in Washington, gathered all the published reports he could find about someone or other counting how many feathers were on particular birds. “The work of feather counting is tedious and exacting,” he explained, “and yields small result relative to the labour involved.”

Among Wetmore’s gatherings from his peers: “Dr Jonathan Dwight found 3,235 feathers on a male Bobolink taken in spring. RC McGregor has recorded 1,899 feathers on a Savannah sparrow … and 6,544 on a glaucous winged Gull … Miss Phoebe Knappen has reported 11,903 feathers on an adult female mallard … the bird being one that had died from phosphorus poisoning.”

Wetmore proceeded to have someone he could count on do some do some new counting on his behalf: “The actual labour of counting was done under my direct supervision by Marie Siebrecht (now Mrs James Montroy) who, employed as an assistant, worked carefully and conscientiously at a long and somewhat tedious task”….

—So begins another Improbable Research column in The Guardian.

Does chewing gum improve our mind and our productivity?

Tuesday, August 19th, 2014

For advocates of chewing gum in school, if there are any, the past decade of research has brought data, and perhaps hope. A project called The Effects of Gum Chewing on Math Scores in Adolescents studied the mathematics grades and test scores of 53 teenage students who chewed gum and 58 who did not. Craig Johnston of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, led the study. It was sponsored by the Wm Wrigley Jr Company, which makes chewing gum….

—So begins another Improbable Research column in The Guardian.

To deal with climate change… make people smaller

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

liaoThe plan to engineer a shorter, smaller human race to cope with climate change is almost as big and bold as the schemes of people working to convince themselves climate change won’t affect them.

The plan, at this point still sketchy, has three engineers. S Matthew Liao [pictured here] is a professor of bioethics at New York University. Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache are fellows who study ethics at the University of Oxford. The trio launched their “be-littler” idea in a paper called “Human engineering and climate change“, in 2012 in the journal Ethics, Policy and the Environment.

—So begins another Improbable Research column in The Guardian.

BONUS [unrelated]: “Schoolgirl ‘beheaded classmate because she wanted to dissect someone’

Watson and Crick and Pippa Middleton’s bottom

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

A three-page study called “And Bringing Up the Rear: Pippa Middleton, Her Derrière and Celebrity“, written by a Birkbeck, University of London scholar, Janet McCabe, marks Britain’s instant new status as top dog and intellectual driver of an entire academic field. It is, in that respect, as mentally electrifying as was a one-page study called A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid, published in 1953 by a pair of then-obscure University of Cambridge scholars named James Watson and Francis Crick.

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

Here’s video of Pippa Middleton’s first big starring appearance:

First attempts to model bipolar patients as harmonic oscillators

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

People with bipolar disorder swing between mood extremes. A team of mathematicians decided to see how much of that swinging they could describe mathematically.

Mason Porter, then at the Georgia Institute of Technology and now at Oxford University, with several US colleagues, published a study in 2009, Mathematical Models of Bipolar Disorder. It appeared in the journal Communications in Nonlinear Science and Numerical Simulation.

Bipolar disorder has always been a difficult condition to recognise and describe in words, let alone equations….

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

BONUS: Here’s detail from the study:


BONUS: Mason Porter wrote a blog commentary about the article.