Archive for 'Newspaper column'

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.

Hydraulic invention: No need to clamber for theater seating

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Next time someone disrupts your evening by clambering in or out of a nearby theatre seat, remember: it needn’t be this way.

In 1924, Louis J Duprey of Dorchester, Massachusetts, patented a system that “permits any patron of the theatre to enter or leave his place without at all disturbing other patrons”. You, the patron, entered vertically, though a trap door, already ensconced on a chair. When you wanted to leave, a discreet twist of a knob activated the machinery in reverse, causing the chair, and you, to quietly sink back down, and out.


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

NOTE: Years after Mr. Duprey obtained his patent, Flann O’Brien independently created much the same idea — but purely as a comic notion, and with much less detail. See page 37 of the book collection (The Best of Myles) of many of his Irish Times newspaper columns.

The scariness of spiders to people scared of spiders

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

Here is one way to measure people’s fear of spiders. Post flyers seeking individuals who are very afraid of spiders, and who are willing to be paid a small amount of cash to participate in a research project, said project turning out to be the repeated answering of survey questions before and during the following activities:

1 approaching a live spider in an uncovered glass tank, initially standing 12 feet away from the tank.

2 coming right up to the tank and using an eight-inch stick to guide the spider hither and thither for a marathonic two minutes.

3 using a 5.5-inch stick to guide the spider thither and hither during a two-minute eternity.

4 estimating as exactly as possible the spider’s size (by drawing a line on a card “indicating the length of the spider from the tips of its front legs to the tips of its back legs”).

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

BONUS: A peek inside the lab of Russ Fazio, one of the people who did this research: