Sad news: Don Featherstone, creator of the plastic pink flamingo, died today

June 22nd, 2015

Don Featherstone, the creator of the plastic pink flamingo, died this morning. He was a friend, whom we have known since 1996, the year he was awarded the Ig Nobel Prize for art.


Don and his wife, Nancy Featherstone, came to almost every Ig Nobel Prize ceremony in succeeding years, where adoring throngs cheered them and the plastic pink flamingos. He has been ill the past few years. This photo shows Don and Nancy (who, every day of their marriage, wore matching outfits designed by Nancy) at the last of Don’s many happy returns, in 2012:


Don created the flamingo when he was freshly graduated from art school, and newly employed at a plastics factory. One of his first assignments was to create three-dimensional plastic lawn ornaments (up to that time, most plastic lawn ornaments were more or less flat). The flamingo was one of his earliest efforts for the factory.

Eventually he became president of the company. After Don retired, dire things were done, by his successor, to the flamingo, triggering a worldwide protest, which eventually led to a more or less happy rallying of the forces of Good, and a restoration of the plastic pink flamingo’s status. In 2011, the flamingo attained new heights, when the Disney movie Gnomeo and Juliet featured a plastic pink lawn ornament named “Featherstone”. Don and Nancy were feted at the film’s premiere.

The flamingos inspired the film that launched John Waters‘s directorial career: Pink Flamingos. The flamingos also inspired the birth of several businesses that supply flamingoes en mass, as surprise visitors to the lawn of a beloved or despised neighbor. One of those businesses produced this tribute/promotional video, in 2008:

Don Featherstone was a happy, kind, and thoughtfully imaginative man, who became famous for his goofiest, tackiest creation. It was “goofiest” and “tackiest” by Don’s own reckoning — he was a richly talented artist, but felt that, given the fame and financial security the flamingo brought him, he ought to publicly act as if he were interested only in making happy goofy, plastic art. In 2012, Abigail Tucker wrote a history of the flamingo’s effect on the world, in Smithsonian magazine, with the headline “The Tacky History of the Pink Flamingo.”

Please think of Don, and raise a smile, whenever you see a flamingo, be it plastic or of some less physically durable species.

(The photo above shows two of the flamingos Don donated to the Improbable Research museum.)

UPDATE: Reader Scott Valla suggests: “Everyone please stand in your yard on one leg for a moment of silence.”

UPDATE: A few of the press reports about Don’s passing: CNN, Boston Globe, Associated Press / CBS, Washington Post, New York Times, CBS News Sunday Morning


The role of flapping elephant ears in heat dissipation

June 22nd, 2015

Elephants are big, and they get hot. Especially in Africa. Thus, from the elephant’s point of view, there’s sometimes an urgent necessity to dissipate excess heat.

Some investigators have suggested that flapping their large ears (strictly, their ‘pinnae’) could provide a significant heat-loss mechanism. (e.g. Buss, I. O., and Estes, J. A., 1971, ‘The Functional Significance of Movements and Positions of the Pinnae of the African Elephant. Loxodonta Africana, Journal of .Mammalogy, 52, pp. 21-27) But, until 2013, no formal studies had investigated the transient effects of the flapping motion on the elephant pinna’s surface temperature. Prompting Dr. Moise Koffi (of the Department of Academic Affairs, CUNY-Hostos Community College, Bronx, NY, US) along with Prof. Yiannis Andreopoulos and Prof. Latif M. Jiji (both of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, The City College of New York, NY, US) to perform a series of controlled laboratory-based studies. Their experiments included the use of full-sized flapping leather faux elephant ears, silicone heaters, and a smoke machine  – along with computer-model thermal simulation techniques.


The results of the experiments and simulations not only demonstrated and quantified the efficacy of ear flapping, but also showed (for the first time) the role played by swirling air vortices [see photo below].elephant_ear_smoke_03


[…] our results agree with the conclusion reached by previous researchers that the flapping of the pinna should be the main thermoregulatory mechanism of the body temperature of large animals such as African elephants. The present contribution, however in the context of the current understanding, is in identifying the vortical system that is responsible for the heat transfer enhancement
observed in the present work which is further amplified in the case of flexible surface.”

See: The Role of Pinnae Flapping Motion on Elephant Metabolic Heat Dissipation in: The Journal of Heat Transfer, Volume 136, Issue 10.

The $14.95 question : In the light of the new findings, are questions (and answers) like these in need of revision? [thanks to P.H. for the link]

BONUS: The famous Disney cartoon version of elephant ear flapping:


Ig Nobel ceremony tickets will go on sale July 9

June 21st, 2015

Tickets for the 25th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony will go on sale on THURSDAY, JULY 9, 2015 at NOON (Boston time). They will be available exclusively from the Harvard Box Office (online, by phone, and at Holyoke Center).

If you want us to notify you the day before they go on sale, add yourself to the Improbable events notification private email list.

The ceremony itself will happen on Thursday evening, September 17, at Sanders Theatre, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, Planet Earth, Milky Way, etc.

Here’s the ceremony poster (click on the image to see a hi-res version that you can download):


Praga-dialectics update: An analysis of “Yes, but …”

June 21st, 2015

ARGLabThe ArgLab at the Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Portugal, is concerned with argumentation and decision making processes as far as they can be philosophically approached and thus related with Practical Reason and Values. For a representative recent publication from the lab, see: ‘Managing disagreement through yes, but… constructions: An argumentative analysis’  (by Mehmet Ali Uzelgun, Dima Mohammed, Marcin Lewiński, and Paula Castro, in: Discourse Studies April 28, 2015)

“The goal of this study is to examine the argumentative functions of concessive yes, but… constructions. Based on (N = 22) interview transcripts, we examine the ways environmental activists negotiate their agreements and disagreements over climate change through yes, but… constructions. Starting from conversational analyses of such concessive sequences, we develop an account grounded in argumentative discourse analysis, notably pragma-dialectics. ”

Bonus argumentative resource: The Journal of Argumentation in Context.

Also see: (Improbable posts)
“YES!” – a comprehensive review (part 1)
“YES!” – a comprehensive review (part 2)

An insipid CH star in the Sculptor dwarf spheroidal galaxy

June 20th, 2015

An insipid CH star in the Sculptor dwarf spheroidal galaxy is the subject of this study:

An insipid CH star in the Sculptor dwarf spheroidal galaxy,”  Matthew D. Shetrone [pictured here], Michael Briley, and James P. Brewer, Astronomy and Astrophysics, 335 (1998): 919-921.