Leadership by a man with a big mouth (Podcast 61)

April 27th, 2016

Does having a big mouth make a man more likely to become a political leader? A research study asked that very question. We discuss it, in this week’s Improbable Research podcast.

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This week, Marc Abrahams  —with dramatic readings by Daniel Rosenberg — tells about:

The mysterious John Schedler or the shadowy Bruce Petschek perhaps did the sound engineering this week.

The Improbable Research podcast is all about research that makes people LAUGH, then THINK — real research, about anything and everything, from everywhere —research that may be good or bad, important or trivial, valuable or worthless. CBS distributes it, on the CBS Play.it web site, and on iTunes and Spotify).

Morphometrics maven: morphometricians must and can do better

April 26th, 2016

booksteinA grizzled morphometrician casts a cold, gleeful eye at his field, and urges himself and his fellow morphometricians to do better. Morphometrics is the the continuing attempt to carefully measure and compare shapes and sizes. This morphometrician’s happy diatribe is in the form of a long, new paper:

The Inappropriate Symmetries of Multivariate Statistical Analysis in Geometric Morphometrics,” by Fred L. Bookstein (pictured here], Evolutionary Biology, epub 2016, pp 1-37. The author, who is at the University of Washington and the University of Vienna, writes, in densely grand language:

“In today’s geometric morphometrics the commonest multivariate statistical procedures, such as principal component analysis or regressions of Procrustes shape coordinates on Centroid Size, embody a tacit roster of symmetries—axioms concerning the homogeneity of the multiple spatial domains or descriptor vectors involved—that do not correspond to actual biological fact. These techniques are hence inappropriate for any application regarding which we have a-priori biological knowledge to the contrary (e.g., genetic/morphogenetic processes common to multiple landmarks, the range of normal in anatomy atlases, the consequences of growth or function for form). But nearly every morphometric investigation is motivated by prior insights of this sort. We therefore need new tools that explicitly incorporate these elements of knowledge, should they be quantitative, to break the symmetries of the classic morphometric approaches. Some of these are already available in our literature but deserve to be known more widely…”

Here’s a bit of flavored detail from the paper:


Group theory in the bedroom (OR: As the mattress turns…)

April 26th, 2016

Brian Hayes‘s essay (in American Scientist) called “Group Theory in the Bedroom” applies advanced mathematics to what happens in the bedroom. The bedroom is the room with the bed in it. The essay begins:

Having run out of sheep the other night, I found myself counting the ways to flip a mattress. Earlier that day I had flipped the very mattress on which I was not sleeping, and the chore had left a residue of puzzled discontent. If you’re going to bother at all with such a fussbudget bit of housekeeping, it seems like you ought to do it right, rotating the mattress to a different position each time, so as to pound down the lumps and fill in the sags on all the various surfaces. The trouble is, in the long interval between flips I always forget which way I flipped it last time. Lying awake that night, I was turning the problem over in my head, searching for a golden rule of mattress flipping….

The search for a mattress-flipping algorithm leads to some diverting mathematics, not just in the bedroom but also in the garage and at the breakfast table. Furthermore, although I can offer no golden rule for mattress flipping, I do have some practical advice….

Particularly helpful is the branch of mathematics known as group theory, which is the traditional tool for studies of symmetry.

Orang-utans blow raspberries too

April 25th, 2016

WildManOfTheJungleIf you thought that humans were the only animal proficient at blowing a raspberry (a.k.a. voiceless exolabio-lingual trilling*1) think again. Orang-utans, for example*2 can and do blow them, usually when nesting [for reasons as yet unclear to us]. If you would like to hear an orang-utan blowing a raspberry, you’re in luck – the authors of a 2012 PloS ONE paper provide a recording of one (of the 35 which they transcribed in Sumatra and Borneo). [.wav format].

As featured in: Call Cultures in Orang-Utans? Wich SA, Krützen M, Lameira AR, Nater A, Arora N, Bastian ML, et al. PLoS ONE 7(5): e36180


1.  Although the raspberry has been classified (Pike, Kenneth L. (1943). Phonetics: A Critical Analysis of Phonetic Theory and a Technique for the Practical Description of Sounds) as a ‘voiceless exolabio-lingual trill’, implying the use of the tongue, Improbable suggests or contends or possibly even asserts that it’s quite easy to blow one without the use of one’s tongue. Discuss.

2. Raspberry-blowing species include humans, chimpanzees and walruses – you may know of others, in which case you can keep it to yourself, or alternatively, why not let our readers know by commenting below?

Leisurely Chimpanzee Drumming Formally Considered

April 24th, 2016

Some chimpanzees drum, and some humans analyze that:

Charlotte-CureChimpanzee drumming: a spontaneous performance with characteristics of human musical drumming,” Valérie Dufour, Nicolas Poulin, Charlotte Curé [pictured here], and Elisabeth H.M. Sterck, Scientific Reports, vol. 5 2015. (Thanks to Elizabeth Oberzaucher for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, at the University of Strasbourg, France, at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Strasbourg, France, at Biomedical Primate Research Center, Rijswijk, the Netherlands, and at Utrecht University, the Netherlands, write:


“Here we report an episode of spontaneous drumming by a captive chimpanzee that approaches the structural and contextual characteristics usually found in musical drumming. This drumming differs from most beating episodes reported in this species by its unusual duration, the lack of any obvious context, and rhythmical properties that include long-lasting and dynamically changing rhythms, but also evenness and leisureliness.”

Here’s a recording of some of that drumming:

And here’s detail, from the study, or how it can be visualized graphically: