Archive for 'Newspaper column'

What, When, or How Do Students Complain?

Monday, December 9th, 2013

There may be no truly satisfactory way to measure how much or how well students complain. But several teams of researchers have tried. One attempted to measure how students complain; another, how they intend to complain. A third team tried to gauge students’ attitudes to complaining. These are not easy to measure well, or consistently.

In 2010, David Hart and Nigel Coates, at Northumbria University’s Newcastle business school, published a study called International Student Complaint Behaviour: How Do East Asian Students Complain To Their University? in the Journal of Further and Higher Education.

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

They seek a language for cheese

Monday, November 11th, 2013

murrayThe 21st century, at its birth, saw cheese researchers in something of a frenzy trying to solve the industry’s great language problem. The problem is this: say what you will, the taste of a cheese is hard to describe.

This cheese – this one! – is better than the others, you insist. But how can you say why? Which words would cause competent cheesiasts, munching this same cheese and hearing you speak, to all agree?

Researchers chose to concentrate on cheddar. One must start somewhere.

In 2000, Jane Murray [pictured here, above] and Conor Delahunty [pictured here, below] of University College Cork rejected all earlier cheese-language-making attempts, complaining that “the method by which these were selected” was vague.

delahuntyMurray and Delahunty went at it with 25 volunteer taster/talkers and samples of Ballyclough cheddar, unislim reduced-fat cheddar-type, and other cheddary cheeses available in Ireland. Their resulting paper,Selection of Standards to Reference Terms in a Cheddar-Type Cheese Flavour Language, serves up a list of 21 terms to be used singly or in judicious combination: pungent, caramel, sweaty, creamy, fruity, buttery, rancid, cheddary, mushroom, mouldy, nutty, smokey, soapy, processed, sweet, salty, acidic, bitter, astringent and balanced….

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

BONUS (tangentially related): “How 17th Century Fraud Gave Rise To Bright Orange Cheese

King Ferdinand of Naples was lousy

Monday, September 30th, 2013

Even in the imagined-good old days, the phrase “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” could mean simply that the king had head lice. A medical case report tells in detail the scalpy woes of Ferdinand II of Aragon.

Ferdinand, who became king of Naples, crawled or trod the Earth during the years 1467 to 1496. Head lice crawled or trod the king’s scalp, still, for a time after that.

The mummified remains of the entire community of Ferdinand and his lice lived on, so to speak, in Naples, in the sacristy of the Basilica of San Domenico Maggiore. Several years ago, a team of scientists, from the University of Pisa and the University of Rome “La Sapienza”, went to work on the mummy with a scanning electron microscope and an array of chemico-analytical instruments.

Their report appears in a 2009 issue of the Brazilian medical journal Memórias do Instituto Oswaldo Cruz. It states, with obvious pride

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

Here’s a detail from the study:


Solar protectivity of beards and moustaches, tested

Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

parisiDr Alfio V Parisi [pictured here] and his team stuck beards and moustaches on some dummies, put them out in the hot, hot sun, and measured what happened. They did this after they had run a related experiment with toupees – a trial which itself was preceded by years of painstaking work with tree leaves, automobile windows, adolescent girls, lawn bowlers and snorkelers.

Parisi and his various collaborators have now published more than 150 scientific reports about what’s most dangerous – and what’s maybe a little less so – for people who expose themselves to daylight….

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

Below, detail from one of the studies:


One-breast enlargement from German military rifle chest-slapping

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

The rhythmic impact of a rifle wielded by a military man can puff up his chest. This sometimes leads to worry, or worse. Though soldiers might appreciate a good pair of breasts, what would happen if they themselves grew a pair? Or if they grew just one?

Some men do experience this affront. A study called Gynecomastia in German Soldiers: Etiology and Pathology, published last year in the journal GMS Interdisciplinary Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, analysed the plight of 211 male German soldiers who suffered from, or at least exhibited, one or two enlarged breasts. The ailment has a medical name: gynecomastia.

The study’s authors, Prof Björn Dirk Krapohl, Dr Dietrich Doll, and four colleagues at Bundeswehrkrankenhaus, the German Armed Forces Hospital in Berlin, played detective. They set out “to investigate the increased incidence of left-sided gynecomastia in members of the German Ministry of Defense Guard Battalion who perform ceremonial duties in Berlin.…

—So begins this month’s Improbable Research column in The Guardian. (NOTE: some of the comments from Guardian readers are rather entertaining.)