Archive for 'Newspaper column'

Ugly and Pretty Paintings, and Laser Beams, and Swearing

Tuesday, March 19th, 2013

Prior to 2008 no one knew, at all precisely, the pain people suffer when they gaze at an ugly painting – relative to what they’d feel if they were looking at a pretty picture – while a stranger shoots them in the back of the hand with a powerful laser beam. Now something is known about the subject. The knowledge is preserved in a study called Aesthetic Value of Paintings Affects Pain Thresholds.

The study’s authors, Marina de Tommaso, Michele Sardaro and Paolo Livrea at the University of Bari in Italy, had 12 people each identify paintings as beautiful or ugly, then stare at some of each kind while a laser heated into the dorsal surface of their hand. Each volunteer, after each viewing, rated the pain on a scale of zero to 100. The hurt was a little worse when they looked at ugly art, they said, mostly.

This manner of inflicting pain – applying a carefully aimed column of light amplified by stimulated emission of radiation (that’s the phrase, more or less, that gives us the cool, five-letter word “laser”), is not the only possible way….

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

The Lodger Who Watched Them Eat

Monday, February 18th, 2013
Mary Douglas, who supervised the man who watched people eat

Mary Douglas, who supervised the man who watched people eat

Confident that no one would notice what he was doing, Michael Nicod spent months in the homes of families he did not know, making detailed notes about everything they ate. Nicod was performing research for Britain’s Department of Health and Social Security in 1974. He and his colleague, University College London professor Mary Douglas, wrote a report called Taking the Biscuit: The Structure of British Meals.

Nicod and Douglas wanted to identify what typical British persons see as the essential parts of their typical meals. The pair drew on their training as anthropologists: “We imagined a dietician in an unknown Papuan or African tribe wondering how to introduce a new, reinforcing element into tribal diet. We assumed that the dietician’s first task would be to discover how the tribe ‘structured’ their food.”

Nicod lived as a lodger with “four working-class families where the head was engaged in unskilled manual labour”, in East Finchley, Durham, Birmingham and Coventry. He stayed in each place at least a month, “watching every mouthful and sharing whenever possible”….

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

The energetic pursuit of sloths

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

two-toed-slothsThe name of the sloth is synonymous with a certain style of sin. But scientists pursue them for other reasons, too. The animals move – something they do on occasion – in what can seem mysterious ways. They hang upside down from tree limbs, and sometimes amble that way there. On the ground, ambling right-side-up is their preferred way to get from here to slightly over there. They often snooze.

A study called Three-Dimensional Kinematic Analysis of the Pectoral Girdle During Upside-Down Locomotion of Two-Toed Sloths appeared two years ago in the journal Frontiers in Zoology. John Nyakatura and Martin Fischer of Friedrich-Schiller-Universität in Jena, Germany, analysed the “suspensory quadrupedal locomotion” of two sloths. They concluded that an earlier biologist had exaggerated, but only slightly, in proclaiming that “of all mammals, the sloths have probably the strangest mode of progression”.

Others hesitated less to say more….

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

BONUS: Maggie Koerth-Baker’s “Four Fun Facts About Sloths“, in BoingBoing

BONUS (conceivably related, in an immaculate fashion): Catholic Answers Magazine tells tales about “The Sin of Sloth

Wordplay proves a fruitful area for research

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

Words, words, words are the bread, butter, salt, pepper, meat and potatoes of a small, US-based magazine called Word Ways that has been coming out four times a year since 1968. Dmitri Borgmann, the founding editor, described it as “the journal of recreational linguistics”. Its essence, in a word: wordplay.

Borgmann’s obituary, in a 1985 issue of Word Ways, says his greatest achievement was to “demonstrate that wordplay is an intellectual discipline in its own right”. Borgmann’s reputation was already such, says the obituary, that Standard Oil of New Jersey had hired him to devise a replacement for its antiquated brand name. ‘Twas Borgmann, they say, who spiffed and twisted old-fashioned “Esso” into modern “Exxon”. (Later issues of Word Ways say that the Esso-into-Exxon story may be rather more complicated.)

The first issue of Word Ways included Borgmann’s The Longest Word in English, in which he traipses along the length of “the 27-letter honorjficajhlitudinitatibus”, “the 28-letter antidisestablishmentarianism”…

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

BONUS (somewhat related): A claim to have built the world’s longest palindromic sentence

Why was Mrs Thatcher interrupted so often in interviews?

Tuesday, December 4th, 2012

Prime minister Margaret Thatcher‘s masterful way of handling interruptions inspired one psychologist to study, intently, how she did it. As this scholar communicated his findings to the public, other scholars, with different views, interrupted him – and he them.

Geoffrey Beattie [pictured here] is now a professorial research fellow of the Sustainable Consumption Institute at the University of Manchester. Or rather, was — he reportedly was sacked after I wrote this column but just before it was published.

In 1982, while at the University of Sheffield, Beattie published two studies about Thatcher….

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