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Importance Sometimes Eclipses Amusement: Dung Beetles & the Milky Way

July 29th, 2021

When people first encounter something surprising, it can seem laughable and thought-provoking. Later, if enough people come to decide the discovery is important, people then treat it with reverence and awe. The discovery has become too important, apparently, to describe with amusement. The public reaction has changed—but it’s the same discovery!

Here is , perhaps, a good example, about dung beetles.

The 2013 Ig Nobel Prize jointly in Biology and Astronomy was awarded to Marie Dacke, Emily Baird, Marcus Byrne, Clarke Scholtz, and Eric Warrant, for discovering that when dung beetles get lost, they can navigate their way home by looking at the Milky Way.

Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements that make people LAUGH, then THINK.

The team came to that year’s Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony at Harvard University, where they and their discovery were greeted loudly with simultaneous amusement AND appreciation.

Now, nine years later, witness the stately, laughless appreciation of that discovery and follow-up discoveries. The New York Times reports respectfully, without amusement, on July 29, 2021:

One moonless night a little more than a decade ago, Marie Dacke and Eric Warrant, animal vision experts from Lund University in Sweden, made a surprise discovery in South Africa.

The researchers had been watching nocturnal dung beetles, miniature Sisyphuses of the savanna, as they tumbled giant balls of dung. The beetles seemed to be able to roll remarkably straight, even though they had no clear landmarks to reference.

“We thought maybe they were using our cameras, maybe someone had lit a fire somewhere,” Dr. Dacke said. “We were really confused.” Then they realized the beetles were guided by the 100,000 light-years-long streak of the Milky Way.

We humans are famous for this sort of thing.

Science: Laughter, then Sometimes Laughless Reverence

Science, as it is often taught and described, is a long list of discoveries that at first struck people as being amusing and thus trivial or wrong. Some of those discoveries later came to be seen as important and correct. After that moment (“Hey, this is important!”) each of those discoveries was treated with reverence and awe—but no longer with delighted amusement.

What’s Next?

Ten new Ig Nobel Prize winners will be introduced at the 31st First Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, on September 9, 2021.


A listen back to the Ig Nobel Prize for Karaoke

July 29th, 2021

BBC News produced this short documentary about the birth of karaoke. It centers on Daisuke Inoue, the person most often credited with inventing karaoke. (Many other people claim credit, too, and it’s entirely possible that several of them did indeed each independently invent the basics, as happens with many technical innovations!)

The 2004 Ig Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Daisuke Inoue “for inventing karaoke, thereby providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other”.

The BBC report features a recording of the moment, at the 2004 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony in Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, when Daisuke Inoue was awarded the prize, and was serenaded by Nobel laureates Dudley Herschbach, William Lipscomb, and Rich Roberts, and by the audience of 1100 giddy spectators. That magical moment begins at the 6:25 point in the BBC recording.

Ig Nobel Prize-winning Gadgeteer Ron Popeil has finished inventing

July 28th, 2021

Gadgeteer Ron Popeil, who was awarded the 1993 Ig Nobel Prize for consumer engineering, has died, according to press reports. The famed inventor was cited, in winning that Ig Nobel prize, for “redefining the industrial revolution with such devices as the Veg-O-Matic, the Pocket Fisherman, Mr. Microphone, and the Inside-the-Shell Egg Scrambler.”

Here is a report, by TMZ, about his passing:

Behold video recordings of a few of the many television commercials in which Ron Popeil and his minions promoted his inventions, many of which were marketed under the name “Ronco”:

“Further Persecution of a Corpse: Beethoven and His Metronome”

July 27th, 2021

Further findings related to the confusion, reported here a few days ago, and elsewhere years ago, about Beethoven and his markings and his metronome:

Conductors’ Tempo Choices Shed Light over Beethoven’s Metronome,” Almudena Martin-Castro and Iñaki Ucar, PLoS ONE, vol. 15, no. 12, 2020, e0243616. (Thanks to Xavier Purroy Solans for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, at Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia and at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, Getafe, Spain, explain:

During most part of Western classical music history, tempo, the speed of music, was not specified, for it was considered obvious from musical context. Only in 1815, Maelzel patented the metronome. Beethoven immediately embraced it, so much as to add tempo marks to his already published eight symphonies. However, these marks are still under dispute, as many musicians consider them too quick to be played and even unmusical, whereas others claim them as Beethoven’s supposedly written will. In this work, we develop a methodology to extract and analyze the performed tempi from 36 complete symphonic recordings by different conductors. Our results show that conductor tempo choices reveal a systematic deviation from Beethoven’s marks, which highlights the salience of “correct tempo” as a perceptive phenomenon shaped by cultural context. The hasty nature of these marks could be explained by the metronome’s ambiguous scale reading point, which Beethoven probably misinterpreted.


The Frog Test [Humour Study]

July 26th, 2021

As some have pointed out, analyzing humour can be a bit like dissecting a frog – the frog always dies.

Nevertheless, Professor Ori Amir, who is not only Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychological Science at Pomona College, US, but also a stand-up comedian – has suggestions for a new humour analysis method, which, he says, might help in alleviating the death of the frog :

The method relies on the assumption that presenting participants with theoretical accounts for a specific joke would shift their attention to those joke elements or the perspective the theory deems relevant. A unique advantage of the method is that it does not require a manipulation of joke content (as does the experimental approach) or determining whether vague or abstract theoretical conditions are met (as does content analysis).

See The Frog Test: A Tool for Measuring Humor Theories’ Validity and Humor Preferences Frontiers in Human Neuroscience February 2016

BONUS : Professor Amir tells neuroscience jokes

Improbable Research