Archive for 'Ig Nobel'

The case of the missing(?) feet

Tuesday, October 30th, 2018

A strange (and true) news report from 1996, about an aftermath of that year’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, begins:

Sorting Out This Case Could Take The Wisdom of a Learned Hand
By Ross Kerber
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

The value of a Nobel Prize-worthy feat is clearly
established: The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
pays $1.1 million to winners of the coveted awards.

The value of Nobel Prize-worthy feet is harder to
fix, but two of them have evidently fallen into the
wrong hands.

At an auction in Cambridge, Mass., last month,
software engineer Nigel J. Foster says he paid $15
for a plaster sculpture of the left foot of Richard
Roberts, a biologist who won the Nobel Prize in
1993. The Roberts foot now sits on Mr. Foster’s mantel
in nearby Newton.

But another bidder, Jylene Livengood, says she paid
$30 for the Roberts replica and is its rightful owner….

Here, below, is a portion of our own report (in the Annals of Improbable Research special issue about the 1996 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony) about that plaster-pedal incident. The photo was taken during the auctioning of the several plaster-cast feet:

You can, if you like, watch video of the auctioning of the plaster casts of the left feet of the Nobel laureates. It is, in some sense, an historic moment.

NOTE: That 1996 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony included, in addition to the introduction of that year’s ten new Ig Nobel Prize winners, and the auctioning of the plaster feet, the very first Ig Nobel opera, which was about cockroaches and the imminent arrival of a meteor that might destroy all life on earth (with the reputed exception of the cockroaches). Each new Ig Nobel ceremony, in subsequent years, has included the premiere of another new mini-opera. Here’s video of the entire ceremony:

Kidney stones, roller coasters, and the triumph of gymnast Simone Biles

Sunday, October 28th, 2018

The Ig Nobel Prize-winning medical study about roller coasters and kidney stones came to a top gymnast’s mind when she dealt with her own kidney stone. NBC Sports reports:

Simone Biles, with kidney stone, dominates gymnastics worlds qualifying

Simone Biles was in the emergency room past 1 a.m. on Saturday in Qatar. Didn’t look like it in world championships qualifying 17 hours later.

The four-time Rio Olympic champion endured a large kidney stone she named the “Doha Pearl,” coming back with the top all-around qualifying score thus far and all but guaranteeing a place in all four apparatus finals. The last gymnast to run the table like that in qualifying? Biles in 2013.

“I heard roller coasters may help kidney stones,” Biles said, according to the International Gymnastics Federation, “and I am basically my own little roller coaster out there.”

The 2018 Ig Nobel Prize for medicine was awarded to Marc Mitchell and David Wartinger, for using roller coaster rides to try to hasten the passage of kidney stones.

Drs. Mitchell and Wartinger documented their work, in the study “Validation of a Functional Pyelocalyceal Renal Model for the Evaluation of Renal Calculi Passage While Riding a Roller Coaster,” Marc A. Mitchell, David D. Wartinger, The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, vol. 116, October 2016, pp. 647-652.

You can watch Dr. Wartinger explain the kidney stones / roller coaster rides connection, at the Ig Informal Lectures, at MIT, which happened two days after this year’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony.

A look back at George Goble’s prize-winning barbecue quick-ignition triumph

Friday, October 26th, 2018

A look back (a news report, on Oct 9,1996, via the Wayback Machine) at the Ig Nobel Prize for fastest way to ignite a barbecue.

(An additional, until-now untold aspect of the story: The university’s administration was proud of this, then years later suddenly decided to be frightened of mentioning it, then eventually became again proud of it. University administrators, some of them, can be remarkably timid creatures.)

Here’s video of George Goble doing that R&D work:

Dead salmon, again in the service of science

Thursday, October 25th, 2018

Just a few years after dead salmon helped neuroscientists analyze data more carefully, other dead salmon are helping other scientists better understand how trees grow.

The neuroscience salmon figured in the Ig Nobel Prize-winning study “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.

The tree-growth salmon were flung mostly to one side of a stream—and mostly not flung to the other side—over a period of twenty years.  The salmon carcasses apparently made excellent fodder for the trees that grew on the salmon-carcass laden side of the stream.

The University of Washington News explains:

Sockeye carcasses tossed on shore over two decades spur tree growth

… After counting a dead fish, researchers throw it on shore to remove the carcass and not double-count it the next day. The data collection is part of a long-term study looking at how bear predation affects sockeye salmon in this region.

When this effort began in the mid-1990s, Tom Quinn, a professor in the UW School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, decided that everyone should throw sockeye carcasses to the left side of the stream — facing downstream. They might as well be consistent, he thought, and who knows — maybe someday they could see whether the tossed carcasses had an effect on that side of the stream.

Twenty years later, Quinn and colleagues have found that two decades of carcasses — nearly 600,000 pounds of fish — tossed to the left side of Hansen Creek did have a noticeable effect: White spruce trees on that side of the stream grew faster than their counterparts on the other side…. Essentially, as they report in a paper published October 23 in the journal Ecology, the sockeye carcasses were fertilizing the trees.

This video illustrates what happened:

(Thanks to David Kessler for bringing the tree-bound dead salmon to our attention.)

New, tail-swinging research from the urination-duration lab

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018

Ig Nobel Prize winner David Hu and colleagues published a new study investigating why elephants and other tail-swinging mammals swing their tails. Specifically, they looked at how (and how well) tail-swinging repels insects.

The new study is: “Mammals Repel Mosquitoes With Their Tails,” Marguerite E. Matherne, Kasey Cockerill, Yiyang Zhou, Mihir Bellamkonda, David L. Hu, Journal of Experimental Biology, vol. 221,  2018, jeb178905. The researchers explain:

“The swinging of a mammal’s tail has long been thought to deter biting insects, which, in cows, can drain up to 0.3 liters of blood per day. How effective is a mammal’s tail at repelling insects? In this combined experimental and theoretical study, we filmed horses, zebras, elephants, giraffes and dogs swinging their tails. The tail swings at triple the frequency of a gravity-driven pendulum, and requires 27 times more power input. Tails can also be used like a whip to directly strike at insects. This whip-like effect requires substantial torques from the base of the tail…, comparable to the torque of a sedan, but still within the physical limits of the mammal. Based on our findings, we designed and built a mammal tail simulator to simulate the swinging of the tail. The simulator generates mild breezes…, comparable to a mosquito’s flight speed, and sufficient to deter up to 50% of mosquitoes from landing. This study may help us determine new mosquito-repelling strategies that do not depend on chemicals.”

Kathryn Knight, writing in that same journal, talks about the wonders of this tail-swinging study: “Tails guard against voracious insects with curtain of breeze.”

BACKGROUND: David Hu and other colleagues at Georgia Tech were awarded the 2015 Ig Nobel Physics Prize for testing the biological principle that nearly all mammals empty their bladders in about 21 seconds (plus or minus 13 seconds). The new tail-swinging study cites, among other studies, one that itself led to an Ig Nobel Physics Prize (in 2016):

Horváth, G., Blahó, M., Kriska, G., Hegedü s, R., Gerics, B., Farkas, R. and Åkesson, S. (2010). An unexpected advantage of whiteness in horses: the most horsefly-proof horse has a depolarizing white coat. Proc. R. Soc. B 277, 1643-1650.

BOOK: David Hu has a new book called “How to walk on water and climb up walls,” which he will present on tour in the coming months.

BONUS: Another new paper from the same lab, but the other end of the elephant: “Elephant trunks form joints to squeeze together small objects,” by Jianing Wu, Yichao Zhao, Yunshu Zhang, David Shumate, Stephanie Braccini Slade, Scott V. Franklin, and David L. Hu.

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