Archive for 'Newspaper column'

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.)

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:


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.