Archive for 'Newspaper column'

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:


The patent blossoming of artificial cauliflower ears for fight fans

Monday, January 20th, 2014

dear-patent-detailIn the spirit of making-lemons-into-lemonade, a few individuals have realised that, when life produces cauliflower ears, it might also be coaxed to produce customers who will pay money for replicas of cauliflower ears. A patent application (US 20130326793 [a detail from it is pictured here]) describes the fruit of their ingenuity: “An apparatus and method for wearing replica ‘cauliflower’ ears which are moulded from the actual cauliflower ears of athletes [in] contact sports including mixed martial arts (MMA), wrestling, rugby, boxing.”

The patent explains: “Cauliflower ears are often unique and distinctive for each athlete, and are often considered by the athletes and fans as badges of honour.” The aim is to supply the extra-pulpy artificial ears as adornments for enthusiasts who, though eager, could not or would not sport self-grown, fisticuff-generated cauliflower ears….

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

BONUS: The photo below shows “fan photos” displayed by a California company called Dedicated Few, which offers the ears for sale:


BONUS: A video report by Hawaii News Now about genuine cauliflower ears on mixed martial fighters:

BONUS: Historic video of the band Radioactive Cauliflower, which hails from a California town near the listed home town of the individuals who have applied for the patent for artificial cauliflower ears :

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: