Archive for 'Newspaper column'

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.)

Flashy ways to fight off paparazzi, spies… and anyone else

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

A new invention aims to foil paparazzi who try to photograph people who do not wish to be photographed. Wilbert Leon Smith, Jr. and Keelo Lamance Jackson of California obtained a patent last year for what they call “Inhibiting Unwanted Photography and Video Recording”. Their invention builds on a simple idea patented in 2005 by Jeremy and Joseph Caulfield from Arizona.

The Caulfields equipped celebs with a flashgun that fires automatically the instant another flashgun fires nearby. Smith and Jackson’s device goes that bit better: it’s a rotating, swivelling, oscillating device that can emit multiple strobe lights and other light beams for as long as the celebrity deems necessary.

The device has uses beyond deterring pesky paparazzi. As Smith and Jackson explain, it can also protect our own spy agencies against nosy foreign bad guys…

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

Here’s a technical drawing from the Smith/Jackson patent:

paparazzi-patent-fig

BONUS: Martin Gardiner’s report on this.

A cup of tea and some Smoots: One must or can celebrate standards

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

A core definition of Britishness, the official six-page specification for how to make a cup of tea, is officially “under review”. But don’t panic. It is standard procedure for the British Standards Institution (BSI) to do a “systematic periodic review” of each of its many specifications which, piecemeal, define nearly everything British.

TeaStandardBelying stereotypes of peremptory rigidity in anyone or anything that officially tells the populace what’s what, the BSI is nice about what it does. “British Standards are voluntary in that there is no obligation to apply them or comply with them,” it says. The standards are “devised for the convenience of those who wish to use them”. That sentiment appears in the 44-page specification for standard number BS 0, “the standard that governs the way BSI produces standards”, copies of which are available free of charge.

The cup-of-tea standard, officially numbered BS 6008, has been unchanged since 1980. It does come at a cost: £82 per copy, more than triple the £24 price, in effect, when I profiled it eight years ago….

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

BONUS: The BSI was awarded the 1999 Ig Nobel Prize for literature, for BS 6008.

BONUS: A salute to Smoot.

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.