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Archive for 'Arts and Science'

Null Salad—A Mathematician goes salad bowling

Wednesday, September 30th, 2020

Mathematician Jim Propp worries over a concept he’s been trying, for decades, to digest: Null Salad. Propp explains:

“If you have arugula, basil, celery, dandelion, and endive leaves, how many different tossed salads can you make?” That question, or something like it, was asked in a Math Bowl that I participated in back in high school, during my halcyon days as a mathlete. Actually, “halcyon days” are supposed to be calm days, and quiz-show-style math-smackdowns aren’t known for being calm.  It was certainly an un-halcyon moment when my Math Bowl teammates were urgently saying we should buzz in with the answer 32 to that salad question, and I was saying we needed to figure out whether the judges would think that a bowl containing no ingredients at all was a valid salad.  While we were debating the issue, the other team buzzed in with the answer 32, only to be told “That is incorrect.” Our team immediately buzzed in with the answer 31, which seemed likely to be the answer the judges were looking for.

We got the points, but I liked the other team’s answer better. The idea of an empty salad might seem like a purely mathematical fancy, but half a dozen years later I saw a restaurant menu that offered the null salad, or rather “Nowt, served with a subtle hint of sod all” (for the unbeatable price of 0 pounds and 0 pence)….

Meat-Weight Assessment of Washing-Machine-Washed EpiPens

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2020

(1) Loading some EpiPens (the little injection devices many people use to treat a bad allergic reaction) into washing machines, and then (2) washing them, and then (3) firing those washing-machine-washed EpiPens into hunks of meat was the basis for an experiment.

Details are in the study: “The Effects of Washing on EpiPen Epinephrine Auto-injector Device Integrity and Function,” Andrew McCray, Julie Brown, and Pingping Qu; Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, vol. 145, no. 2, 2020, p. AB5. (Thanks to Josh Steinberg for bringing this to our attention.)

The authors, at Seattle Children’s Hospital, report:

RATIONALE: Prescribing information for EpiPens indicate that the carrier tube is not waterproof. No studies have shown the effects of submerging an EpiPen in water. We aimed to determine the function and integrity of EpiPens after enduring a washing machine cycle.

METHODS: For 68 pairs of same-dose, same-lot, post-consumer expired EpiPens (15 0.3 mg and 53 0.15 mg), one was washed in its carrier tube through the colors cycle of a top-loading washing machine, while its pair was kept at usual conditions. Both were then fired into meat. The increase in meat mass and decrease in device mass were measured to estimate the mass of solution fired….

RESULTS: Washed devices fired a greater mass of epinephrine solution into the meat and devices lost more mass during firing, versus controls. Ten washed devices failed to deploy the needle cover after firing. The effect of washing did not differ by dose or expiration date….

CONCLUSIONS: Washing EpiPens impaired their function. These devices should not be used if accidentally placed through a washing machine cycle


Drinking tears (the case of the butterfly and the girl)

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020

Kees Moeliker reports a well-known—but seldom noticed by humans—butterfly behavior: drinking human tears.

Here is a machine-translation into English of his report in the September 22, 2020 issue of the Dutch newspaper NRC:


Drinking tears

While on holiday in the Alps, a butterfly feasts on the eye fluid of Kees Moeliker’s daughter

The splendor of flowers in a Tyrolean alpine meadow provides an exuberant butterfly life that we no longer know at home in our parched and botanically impoverished Dutch meadows. Everywhere are mazarine blues, pearly heaths, meadow browns, and even swallowtails.

A brown-black butterfly flies around restlessly at a forest edge where we rest along a brook. When he sits down on the green canvas of my backpack, the orange wing band appears with striking black eye spots with bright white centers. I don’t know the species, but with the iObs app it becomes clear that it is the summer erebia (Erebia aethiops), a common species in the Alps. Nothing new under the sun, but that changes when the butterfly lands on my daughter’s nose. “It is very itchy, Daddy,” says Anna Inez (12), who admirably lets nature take its course, even as the insect slowly moves towards her eye. In cases like this, even on vacation, all I can do is observe and record: the butterfly – a male – is now sitting on her cheek, poking between her narrowed eyelids with its proboscis. My very own child undergoes a blatant attempt of ‘lachryphagy’ – drinking tear fluid – by a European diurnal butterfly!

Thanks to decades of research by Hans Bänzinger, this behavior is known, but only in tropical moths, flies and bees. The Swiss entomologist consistently illustrated the countless articles he published on lachryphagy with terrifying photos of his own wide-open eyes in which insects often greedily feast on his tear fluid.

This tear-drinking has now been recorded in more than a hundred insect species. They are after sodium and proteins, mainly in cattle, horses, deer and elephants and to a lesser extent in caimans, turtles and birds. About 25 insect species, most of them moths, also suck moisture from people’s eyes. In teardrop-drinking butterflies, the proboscis acts as a suction organ that is specially equipped with nasty spines and barbs (for grip) but with a flexible tip, designed not to irritate the victim unnecessarily. Bänzinger only felt extreme pain when attacked by the Lobocraspis griseifusa moth with squinted eyes. With his eyes open, he experienced nothing worth mentioning or ‘pinpricks’. Anna Inez described the feeling as “irritating”.

After barely two minutes the butterfly flies away and lands (because of my glasses?) on my lower lip. I can barely suppress my first reflex (splash!)

Reinventing the ‘Dandy Horse’ [patent]

Monday, September 21st, 2020

A ‘Dandy Horse’ was the colloquial name given to a primitive pedal-less bicycle which was a fashionable mode of transport in Europe around 1819.

Fast forward to 2008, when a US patent was granted for an ‘Apparatus for Shifting Weight from a Runner to a Wheeled Frame ‘

– which, at first glance seems remarkably similar. But, unlike the original, the new invention “transfers part of the weight of the runner/walker to the wheeled frame by an elastic means“. Whereas the Dandy Horse was decidedly non-elastic.

Note: Followers of Nominative Determinism may notice the inventor’s name – Mr. Dandy.

Research research by Martin Gardiner

Boredom at the cinema – an exploration [study]

Monday, September 14th, 2020


Have you ever been profoundly bored watching a film? If so, is it possible that you may have overlooked the positive aspects of profound boredom? Either way(s), there’s an article on the subject of cinematic boredom in the current issue of the journal Film Philosophy, in which Dr Chiara Quaranta of the University of Edinburgh, argues that :

“[…] boredom – that from which we daily try to shy away – has the potential to un-conceal the ways we understand and interact with moving images in the world we currently inhabit.”

See (in full) : A Cinema of Boredom: Heidegger, Cinematic Time and Spectatorship, Film-Philosophy, Volume 24 Issue 1, Page 1-21.

Note: The film above (cited in the article) is ‘On Venom and Eternity’ (Traité de Bave et d’Éternité, 1951), from Isidore Isou, whom, Dr Quaranta explains, set out to “ […] dismantle cinema as entertainment; that is, he wished to destroy cinema as a way of killing time to escape boredom.”

Research research by Martin Gardiner

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