“… because his experiments could be so outlandish”

April 15th, 2014

Technology Review reports about art, innovation, and a certain prize-winning scientist:

The path to a great achievement—whether it is a technological innovation or a masterwork of art—is almost never direct. On the contrary, creative breakthroughs often come after wrenching failures. That idea animates The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, a book by Sarah Lewis…

Andre Geim, a physicist who is based at the University of Manchester, was not seen as someone who would ever win the Nobel Prize, because his experiments could be so outlandish. He won the IgNobel Award in 2000 for levitating a live frog with magnets—and then [won the Nobel] for isolating graphene 10 years later. He was dealing with failure: the psychological frustration that can come when people don’t quite take you seriously was difficult for him to endure, required a kind of courage. And he did [the graphene work] through a process of Friday-night experiments: times where, in the laboratory, they felt free enough to fail, and therefore made these groundbreaking discoveries. He’s a good example of what it means to allow the generative process of failure to help you, through these Friday-night experiments.

He was also doing something quite unusual, which is being a deliberate amateur: every five years or so he would go into another field [of physics] and work on other people’s realms of expertise, go to all the conferences, and ask questions they didn’t dare. It required that he get up to speed quickly in a new field but also, as he describes it, not read himself out of his own new ideas.

Examining Bits from the Brains of Jugglers

April 15th, 2014

The international effort to see what, if anything, special might happen to, in, or with the brains of jugglers continues. Jugglers in Germany are the subject of this study. At the time of the study, each juggler stopped juggling and instead clambered into an imaging machine:

Juggling revisited – a voxel based morphometry study with expert jugglers,” Juggling revisited – a voxel based morphometry study with expert jugglers,” P. Gerber, L. Schlaffke, S. Heba, M.W. Greenlee, T. Schultz, T. Schmidt-Wilcke [pictured here], NeuroImage, epub April 7, 2014. (Thanks to @ThatNeilMartin for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, at the University of Regensburg, Ruhr Universität Bochum, the University of Bonn, and the Max Plank Insitute for complex systems, Tübingen, Germany, explain:

schmidt-wilcke“to our knowledge there are no studies that investigated expert jugglers, looking for specific features in regional brain morphology related to this highly specialized skill. Using T1-weighted images and voxel-based morphometry we investigated in a cross-sectional study design, 16 expert jugglers, able to juggle at least five balls and an age- and gender-matched group of non-jugglers…. Our study provides evidence that expert jugglers show increased gray matter density in brain regions involved in visual motion perception and eye-hand coordination, i.e. brain areas that have previously been shown to undergo dynamic changes in terms of gray matter increases in subjects learning a basic three-ball cascade.”

Here’s detail from the study. Like all brain imaging studies, the meaning of the data that produced this image is subject to interpretation, as are all things everywhere always:


BONUS: Video of W.C. Fields, one of the great jugglers of the 20th century whose brain was (alas!) never imaged:

The usefulness of voodoo dolls in studying blood sugar and aggession

April 14th, 2014

The Associated Press tells of the new study by Ig Nobel Prize (for the study “‘Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder’: People who think they are drunk also think they are attractive“) winner Brad Bushman [pictured here] and colleagues:

bushmanThe researchers studied 107 married couples for three weeks. Each night, they measured their levels of the blood sugar glucose and asked each participant to stick pins in a voodoo doll representing his or her spouse. That indicated levels of aggression.

The researchers found that the lower the blood sugar levels, the more pins were pushed into the doll. In fact, people with the lowest scores pushed in twice as many pins as those with the highest blood sugar levels, the researchers said….

The study procedure also raised [an unusual] problem. Bushman had to handle a call from his credit card company, which wanted to make sure it was really he who had spent $5,000 to buy more than 200 voodoo dolls.

The study is:

Low glucose relates to greater aggression in married couples,” by Brad J. Bushman, C. Nathan DeWall, Richard S. Pond, Jr., and Michael Hanus, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, epub April 2014. (Thanks to Davide Castelvecci for bringing this to our attention.) The authors explain:

“Intimate partner violence affects millions of people globally. One possible contributing factor is poor self-control. Self-control requires energy, part of which is provided by glucose. For 21 days, glucose levels were measured in 107 married couples. To measure aggressive impulses, each evening participants stuck between 0 and 51 pins into a voodoo doll that represented their spouse, depending how angry they were with their spouse. To measure aggression, participants competed against their spouse on a 25- trial task in which the winner blasted the loser with loud noise through headphones. As expected, the lower the level of glucose in the blood, the greater number of pins participants stuck into the voodoo doll, and the higher intensity and longer duration of noise participants set for their spouse.”

BONUS (April 15, 2014): ABC News (Australia) has a report about it. The other ABC News (US) interviewed Brad Bushman, too.

Firing a shotgun to calculate the approximate value of π

April 14th, 2014

This mathematics paper broadens the old definition of “a shotgun approach” to solving a problem:

A Ballistic Monte Carlo Approximation of π,” Vincent Dumoulin [pictured here], Félix Thouin, arXiv 1404.1499v2, April 8, 2014. (Thanks to investigator Marcus Sprenkel for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, at the University of Montreal, report:

“We compute a Monte Carlo approximation of {\pi} using importance sampling with shots coming out of a Mossberg 500 pump-action shotgun as the proposal distribution. An approximated value of 3.131 is obtained, corresponding to a 0.33% error on the exact value of {\pi}. To our knowledge, this represents the first attempt at estimating {\pi} using such method, thus opening up new perspectives towards computing mathematical constants using everyday tools.”


Here’s detail from the study:


The Physics arXiv Blog wrote an essay about this.

BONUS (unrelated):  ”Proteomic analysis of human gastric juice: a shotgun approach,” Cynthia RMY Liang,, Sandra Tan, Hwee Tong Tan, Qingsong Lin, Teck Kwang Lim, Yi Liu, Khay Guan Yeoh, Jimmy So, and Maxey Chun, Proteomics 10, no. 21 (2010): 3928-3931.

New recommendation for distributing fresh vs. aged poultry litter

April 14th, 2014

One should not necessarily be blithe about distributing fresh vs. aged poultry litter, if one takes to heart the findings of this study:

Centrifugal spreader mass and nutrients distribution patterns for application of fresh and aged poultry litter,” W. D. Temple, M. Skowrońska, and A. A. Bomke [pictured here], Journal of Environmental Management, vol. 139, 2014, pp. 200-207. (Thanks to investigator Marcin Klejman for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, at the University of British Columbia, Canada and the University of Life Sciences in Lublin, Poland, report:

artBomke“Poultry litter (PL) consists of chicken or turkey manure, feathers and bedding material which is typically wood shavings, sawdust, wheat straw, peanut hulls or rice hulls…. A spin-type centrifugal spreader was evaluated using fresh and aged poultry litter… Relative to the aged litter, the broadcast fresh litter resulted in higher coefficients of variation (CV) over its transverse distance, a narrower calculated space distance between passes for uniform spread and lower soil available N [notrigen] concentrations…. [Our] results suggest that poultry litter should be allowed to age before broadcast application is attempted.”

Here’s detail from the study: