Testing the “Stick-on-the-wall Spaghetti rule”

October 22nd, 2016

Testing the “Stick-on-the-wall Spaghetti rule”

by Simone Montangero, Francesca Vittone, and several Kindergarden Kids (Annalena, Giorgio, Jonathan, Klara, Lilith Milou, Jannes, Lilli, Finn, Marietta, Janto, Sophie, Moritz, Jonas)
Institute for Complex Quantum Systems, Ulm University
Ulm, Germany

There is always a moment when Italians abroad come across a local who explains to them a simple way of knowing how to cook Spaghetti “al dente”: throw them to the wall, if they stick they are ready to be eaten. After the first shock, they typically realize that this rule is worldwide known, while it is completely unknown in Italy where pasta is simply tasted. Being scientists we aim to test this rule to be able to refuse or accept it on solid ground. Moreover, we use this occasion to approach another common problem of scientists, that is, to explain to their young children what their parents do at work: we enrolled a class of preschoolers and show them how to experimentally test a belief with scientific rigor. We hope also to contribute to reduce the frustration of other scientists when their kids ask them about their jobs: long explanations typically result in a frustrated kid going away mumbling something about firemen or bus drivers…


Figure 1: Typical results of the experiment, with stuck spaghetti highlighted in green, failures in red.

Experiment. We test the Stick On the Wall Spaghetti (SOWS) rule with a box of standard Spaghetti “Barilla”, official cooking time 9 minutes as reported on the box. The Spaghetti are cooked for 3, 6, and 9 minutes, and then are thrown against three different kind of walls: a kitchen wall (KW), a window (F), and a whiteboard (T). We have a team of 13 throwers, preschool kids of ages between 5 and 7 years. Each thrower throws one spaghetti for each different cooking time and wall kind, for a total of 13x3x3=107 launches, which are subsequently recorded as successfully stuck or not. Figure 1, reports a typical experimental result together with typical experimental conditions. The collected raw data are reported in Figure 2, for different cooking times and wall types.


Figure 2: Histogram of the experiments results (0 means failure to, 1 success), for the three different wall types (from left to right: window, kitchen and whiteboard), different cooking times (3, 6, and 9 minutes: violet, blue and green).

The statistical analysis of the experimental data acquisition is presented in Figure 3 where we report the average probability to stick (ratio between the number of stuck spaghetti and the total number of thrown ones) as a function of the cooking time for the three different walls. As expected, in all scenarios the probability to stick (mostly) increases with time. We interpret this as a signal that no major failure occurred in our experimental test. More interesting, after 9 minutes the probability to stick is compatible to 100% within the statistical error in the three cases (in the whiteboard case it is almost exactly one) strongly supporting the SOWS rule. However, the probabilities to stick are of about 50% in all other scenarios (slightly above at six minutes, more spread at three minutes but in all cases with a big standard deviation of about 30%). This implies that a cooker with a simple test with one single spaghetti thrown to the wall cannot acquire any information: in case it sticks the cooker cannot distinguish between any of the cooking time.


Figure 3: Average probability to stick as a function of time for different wall types: Kitchen (blue), Window (green), Whiteboard (Yellow). Standard deviation is of the order of 0.5 for times 3 and 6 minutes, while it drops to about 0.3 in the first two cases and to 0 in the Whiteboard one.

Discussion. A special care has to be paid to the scenario with the whiteboard as it displays an unexpected non-monotonic result: the probability to stick decreases between 3 and 6 minutes. To investigate such behavior and be sure we are not introducing some unwanted bias in our investigation, we analyzed the average probability of success and standard deviation of each thrower, as reported in Figure 4. As it can be seen, these two quantities are homogenous among all throwers but one (our youngest brave thrower), who has almost 100% probability of success. Assuming that this is not a statistical fluctuation but a bias for which data shall be corrected for, almost cures the non-monotonic behavior of the whiteboard data. However, it does not change the overall conclusions of our work, and thus we consider this a strong signal that our data acquisition is bias free.


Figure 4: Average probability (blue) standard deviation (green) for all launches of each thrower.

Conclusions. In conclusion, the SOWS rule shall be refused in any “reasonable” kitchen or restaurant unless a huge amount of spaghetti is wasted in statistical tests. It is indeed more efficient to rely on the cooking time reported on the box. An alternative possibility to avoid waste is that the spaghettis are eaten after being stuck on the wall or fallen onto the floor as we have experienced in our experiment! We stress that this is a clear example where the “common knowledge” shall be carefully used and thus we urge the reader never to believe simple truths even if widespread accepted. We think that our study demonstrated once more the importance of the scientific method, which can be used to improve all important steps of our life starting from a good spaghetti meal.

Acknowledgments. This work has been part of a program for preschooler kids to explain how their parents spend time at work (but not always throwing spaghetti!) and to introduce them to the scientific method. We thank the teachers and the throwers of the preschool class of the Ulm University Kindergarden (Annalena, Giorgio, Jonathan, Klara, Lilith Milou, Jannes, Lilli, Finn, Marietta, Janto, Sophie, Moritz, Jonas) for their dedication, passion and throwing precision.

Dr. Nakamats’s new invention: Extra-functional eyeglasses

October 22nd, 2016

Dr. Nakamats, the world’s most prolific (more than 3500 patents) inventor, and winner of the 2005 Ig Nobel Prize for nutrition, had just obtained yet another patent. His Extra-functional eyeglasses function as traditional eyeglasses do, and also perform extra services for the person wearing them. The invention exists in several different flavors:


  • Night-walking glasses, which provide light when the surroundings are dark changing-eye-color glasses, for the person who wishes to appear to have a new eye color
  • Silent-communication glasses, for the person who is too shy to speak words but would not mind having the glasses display printed words and thoughts
  • Hiding-eye-wrinkles-glasses, for the person who wishes to hide eye wrinkles
  • Conference-glasses, for the person who is tired, and wishes to sleep unnoticed during a meeting

Here are some technical drawings from the patent document:



Here is the inventor modeling his Silent-communication glasses:


And here is the inventor, modeling his Night-walking glasses:


VIDEO: Dr. Nakamats sent us action video of him modeling the various forms of the invention. You can watch it on the Improbable Research Facebook page:


Ps. Dr. Nakamats informs us that he is “still not dead”. [For background on that see the report called “Dr. Nakamats, Continued!“]

Master bullshit analyst graduates, heads off to Yale

October 21st, 2016

The University of Waterloo celebrated the graduation of Gordon Pennycook, who last month, together with his colleagues, was awarded the Ig Nobel Peace Prize. The university writes:


Psych scholar whose research gained global attention graduates
Gordon Pennycook published research on everything from BS to how smartphone use is linked to lazy thinking. Now he’s on a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University

…Pennycook, who graduates this week with a doctorate in psychology from Waterloo, is currently at Yale University on a prestigious Banting postdoctoral fellowship. He will receive the Alumni Gold Medal for outstanding academic achievement at Waterloo’s 113th convocation ceremonies taking place on Friday October 21 and Saturday October 22.

The numerous studies he led and co-authored while a graduate student explore topics such as religious belief, moral judgments and values, creativity, smartphone use, health beliefs, science communication, and bullshit receptivity. The last of these studies, titled “On the reception and detection of pseudo-profound bullshit,” won a 2016 Ig Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to Pennycook and his co-authors just last month at Harvard University.

“We are not nearly as good at detecting bullshit as we think,” wrote Pennycook in a non-academic online publication.

The BS paper attracted plenty of media coverage and interviews, most recently on the current US election….

How to ‘cheat’ at sport without really ‘cheating’ – part 2: Placebos

October 21st, 2016

cblargeIn the previous item in this series Improbable looked at the question of whether ‘praying to win’ at sports might be ‘unsporting’. One aspect (which wasn’t mentioned) is a possible scenario whereby those who pray to win might gain an advantage by a kind-of ‘Divine Placebo’ effect – that’s to say they might try just that little-bit-harder believing that their God is on their side (irrespective of whether their God exists, and, if so, responds to their request). In contrast to ‘pray to win’, there is a considerable body of published academic research into placebo effects in sport. An overview was provided by Dr Christopher Beedie [pictured] and colleague Abigail Foad at Canterbury Christ Church University Canterbury, UK : ‘The Placebo Effect in Sports Performance A Brief Review’ in: Sports Medicine, 39(4):313-29.

The team describe previous studies which found (for example) that sub-elite runners who thought they were drinking ‘super oxygenated water’ ran 8.0% faster. Sub-elite weight lifters who believed they were getting doses of anabolic steroids managed 9.5% more weight than a control group. And untrained students performing leg-presses and who were under the impression that they were taking a special blend of ‘amino acids’ performed a stonking 9.6% more effectively.

Since the paper was published (2009), two subsequent studies have added to the literature :

(Study 1) Relates that 47% of athletes have experienced placebo effects in the past, and 67% wouldn’t mind a placebo-linked deception if it was effective, and :

(Study 2) Which described how 44% of professional coaches admitted to administering a placebo to their athletes.

Coming soon: How to ‘cheat’ at sport without really ‘cheating’ – part 3

Eleni Pinnow joins The Luxuriant Flowing, Former, or Facial Hair Club for Social Scientists (LFFFHCfSS)

October 20th, 2016

Eleni Pinnow has joined The Luxuriant Flowing, Former, or Facial Hair Club for Social Scientists (LFFFHCfSS). She says:

This is a picture of me kissing a redwood tree. I am a Cognitive Psychologist and I study how people process spoken language; mostly, though, I mentor undergraduate research and try to instill the job of the scientific process in my students. I started growing my hair out after tenure because I needed a new challenge. I love my long untamed hair (several students remarked on its similarity to Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School bus).

Eleni Pinnow, Ph.D, LFFFHCfSS
Associate Professor, Psychology
University of Wisconsin, Superior
Superior, Wisconsin, USA