Earliest reported human flight in Britain (some time near the year 1000)

November 29th, 2016

The earliest reported human flight in Britain happened, if it happened, long. long ago. Alison Hudson reports, in the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog:

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a… Monk?

…did you know that the first recorded pioneer of man-powered flight in the British Isles was an Anglo-Saxon monk from Malmesbury Abbey called Eilmer (or in Old English, Æthelmaer) who lived between about 980 and 1070?

6a00d8341c464853ef01b8d23cc63b970c-500wiEilmer’s life is recounted in the Deeds of the Kings of England [pictured here] by William of Malmesbury; indeed, William may have met him when Eilmer was an old man. According to William, many years earlier Eilmer had attached wings to his hands and his feet and jumped from a tower, travelling at least a ‘stadium’ (possibly 200 metres or 600 feet), before being caught by turbulence and breaking both his legs. Eilmer later claimed his error was not fitting a tail to himself, as well as wings. For comparison, the Wright Brothers’ first flight covered about 120 feet.

Eilmer was probably born in the 980s and died after 1066, so his flight probably took place in the 1000s or 1010s. We can guess Eilmer’s lifespan because William of Malmesbury claimed Eilmer had seen Halley’s Comet twice, in 1066 and presumably in 989….

The text, which you can read translated into modern English at archive.org, says:

He was a man of good learning for those times, of mature age, and in his early youth had hazarded an attempt of singular temerity. He had by some contrivance fastened wings to his hands and feet, in order that, looking upon the fable as true, he might fly like Daedalus, and collecting the air on the summit of a tower, had flown for more than the distance of a furlong; but, agitated by the violence of the wind and the current of air, as well as by the consciousness of his rash attempt, he fell and broke his legs, and was lame ever after. He used to relate as the cause of his failure, his forgetting to provide himself a tail.

NEXT POST: Why do they fear British money is made of meat?

A blockade on embargoes, to loose the flood of hidden science news?

November 29th, 2016

“If journalists stopped believing they had to publish a story or post a blog the minute a new study came out…”

You will never hear about most of the flood of research that’s done, worldwide. Partly, that’s because there is so very, very much of it. embargoedBut partly, it’s because the custom of “embargoing” a small number of studies ends up focusing most press attention — and so most public attention — on a teeny tiny, itsy bitsy fraction of what’s out there.

Ivan Oransky tells how this works, and how it came to be, in an article in Vox: “Why science news embargoes are bad for the public“. Here’s part of that:

… But it’s clear that a lot of the power of embargoes would go away if journalists stopped believing they had to publish a story or post a blog the minute a new study came out. Sure, I get the value of a news peg. I used to run a wire service, Reuters Health, that covers health. But it warps the public’s understanding of how science works.

One new study can’t overturn the consensus in the field. And in many cases, the newest study is just the one most likely to be disproven in the future. Readers can often learn more from the history of a scientific question than they can from just the latest stab at answering that question.

But because reporters feel the need to make every finding sound important, embargoes are responsible in some large part, for example, for the weekly seesaw of “coffee is good for you, coffee is bad for you” news coverage with which we’ve all become too familiar….

BONUS: If you want to see some research that’s way outside the it-must-be-important-because-it’s-embargoed research, dip into the Annals of Improbable Research from time to time.

NEXT POST: Did a British monk flap his wings 1000 years ago?

This is your brain on Scrabble™ : an fMRI study

November 28th, 2016

It almost goes without saying that Improbable endeavours to keep our readers up-to-date with current fMRI research projects. In respect of which, may we recommend : ‘This is your brain on Scrabble: Neural correlates of visual word recognition in competitive Scrabble players as measured during task and resting-state’ published in the journal Cortex, Volume 75, February 2016, Pages 204–219.

PowerPoint PresentationAlso see: The 2012 Ig Nobel Prize for Neuroscience: awarded to Craig Bennett, Abigail Baird, Michael Miller, and George Wolford [USA], for demonstrating that brain researchers, by using complicated instruments and simple statistics, can see meaningful brain activity anywhere — even in a dead salmon.

REFERENCE: ‘Neural correlates of interspecies perspective taking in the post-mortem Atlantic Salmon: An argument for multiple comparisons correction’ Craig M. Bennett, Abigail A. Baird, Michael B. Miller, and George L. Wolford, poster, 15th Annual Meeting of the Organization for Human Brain Mapping, San Francisco, CA, June 2009.

ALSO SEE: The Neural Bases of Disgust for Cheese: An fMRI Study

BONUS [fMRI related]: Differences Between Actual and Imagined Usage of Chopsticks

NEXT POST: How teensy a sliver of science will they show you?

Relative Finger Lengths and Russian Wages

November 27th, 2016

The famous “invisible hand” of economics is made visible in part — that part being the relative lengths of some of the fingers of laborers in Russia — in a newly published study.

The study is: “The Effects of Prenatal Testosterone on Wages: Evidence from Russia,” John V.C. Nye, Maksym Bryukhanov, Ekaterina Kochergina, Ekaterina Orel, Sergiy Polyachenko, Maria Yudkevich, Economics and Human Biology, vol. 24, 2017, pp. 43-60.

The authors, at George Mason University, USA, and National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow, explain:

“the relative length of the second to the fourth finger (2D:4D)… Though we do not yet understand the exact biological mechanisms… This paper uses a sample of working-age respondents from Moscow and the Moscow region to establish that [lower 2D:4D ratios] is clearly correlated with higher earnings for both women and men once controlling for factors such as age, education, and occupation.”

Here’s further detail from the study:


Next time you run into a professional economist, ask about this discovery. If you yourself are a professional economist, we would enjoy hearing how this discovery will change the way you understand the world economy.

NEXT BLOG POST: How is Scrabble like a dead salmon?

A telling typo: High Hell Shoes

November 27th, 2016

A typographical error, like a Freudian slip, can sometimes reveal a hidden truth. An example — the phrase “high hell shoes” — appears in this medical study:

Evaluation of the influence of low and high heel shoes on erector spine muscle bioelectrical activity assessed at baseline and during movement,” Anna Mika, Łukasz Oleksy, Edyta Mikołajczyk, Anna Marchewka, Medical Rehabilitation, vol. 13, no. 3, 2009, pp. 1-10. The authors, at the University School of Physical Education in Cracow, and the The McKenzie Institute Poland, write:

Results: A statistically significant increase in erector spine activity was observed in Trunk Flexion and during Flexion-Relaxation Position when wearing high hell shoes….

Conclusion: The prolonged wearing of shoes with stiletto type low and high heels by individuals without back pain is not safe for their spine and may lead to chronic paraspinal muscle fatigue.

Here’s some visual detail from the study:


(Thanks to Aleksandra Przegalinska for bringing this to our attention.)

NEXT POST: Where are finger lengths tied to salaries?