Archive for 'Improbable Investigators'

Ben Franklin's turkey experiment

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

In December 1750, Franklin learned one lesson the hard way, when he shocked himself while trying to electrocute a holiday turkey. Franklin believed electrocuting the turkey made it uncommonly tender. When he began his electrical experiments in about 1745, Franklin had already retired from his printing business, which was good, because Read the rest of this entry »

The problem of the polymaths

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

Many people think they are, or hope they are, or want to be celebrated as being a polymath. Who among them will be pleased, and who offended, at being mentioned or at not being mentioned in the article called “The Last Days of the Polymath“? The article appears in a magazine called More Intelligent Life. It begins:

People who know a lot about a lot have long been an exclusive club, but now they are an endangered species. Edward Carr tracks some down…

Improbable Research Collection #123

Sunday, November 8th, 2009


William Lipscomb, the 1976 Nobel laureate in chemistry, is a Kentucky colonel. He is famous for wearing string ties. Here he demonstrates how to tie a string tie. We made this video as part of the celebration for Professor Lipscomb’s upcoming 90th birthday. Read the rest of this entry »

Grizzly film about Ig winner now online

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

Project Grizzly, the splendid National Film Board of Canada documentary about Ig Nobel Prize winner Troy Hurtubise, can now be watched online in its entirety. Troy was awarded the 1998 Ig Nobel Prize in safety engineering for developing, and personally testing a suit of armor that is impervious to grizzly bears. To watch the film, click on the image.

Fun fact #1: Coming to the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony in 1998 (and again when he returned to show off his anti-grizzly-bear suit-of-armor in 1999) Troy had adventures getting his suit through American customs. But he made it. See below for a photo of the 1998 ceremony.
Fun fact #2: Troy continued working on more advanced suits of armor, which led to many further adventures, none of which killed him.

Ig winner Thorvaldsson pens memoirs

Friday, November 6th, 2009

2009 Ig Nobel economics prize co-winner Armann Thorvaldsson has written a book about his experience. Called Frozen Assets, it is 576 pages long. The publisher says:

Iceland truly lived the boom and bust. Once a tiny country on the edge of Europe, in less than two decades it became a global financial powerhouse.This is the story of how one man, one bank and one country experienced and affected the course of world economic history. Armann Thorvaldsson, a former CEO at Kaupthing in the UK, tells the story…. As the boom got bigger, the Icelandic bankers worked and played hard with their international clients, including Gordon Ramsay, the Candy brothers, Mike Ashley and Robert Tchenguiz. Moving from Reykjavik to London, Monte Carlo and St Tropez, they seemed unstoppable.
Yet, when the bust came, even the most frantic attempts to save the bank were fruitless, leading to the total collapse of the Icelandic economy. Thorvaldsson’s reflections on exactly what happened and why, make compelling reading.

Thorvaldsson and the other directors, executives, and auditors of four Icelandic banks won their Ig for demonstrating that tiny banks can be rapidly transformed into huge banks, and vice versa — and for demonstrating that similar things can be done to an entire national economy.

Interview with Dr. Knuckle-cracker

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

2009 Ig Nobel Medicine Prize winner Dr. Donald Unger gave an in-depth interview on KCAL-9 TV. Dr. Unger won his Ig for investigating a possible cause of arthritis of the fingers, by diligently cracking the knuckles of his left hand — but never cracking the knuckles of his right hand — every day for more than sixty (60) years:

Hell-raising prof inspired by Ig Nobel winner

Thursday, November 5th, 2009

A professor who contractually condemned his students to hell was inspired by an Ig Nobel Prize winner. WKRN reports:

Frustrated over cheating allegations, one professor at Middle Tennessee State University took the idea of a traditional honor code in a controversial direction. Suspecting that one of his MBA candidates had just cheated on an exam, Professor Thomas Tang had each of them sign a pledge that said if they had cheated, they’d be condemned to an eternity in Hell. The pledge went on to say if the student cheated they will “be sorry for the rest of [their] life and go to Hell.”…
Tang said he based his pledge on an academic study showing students who read the Ten Commandments before an exam were less likely to cheat.

The academic study that inspired Professor Tang was performed by Dan Ariely. Professor Ariely, a polymath, was awarded the 2008 Ig Nobel Prize in medicine for demonstrating that high-priced fake medicine is more effective than low-priced fake medicine.
News Channel 5 put Professor Tang’s contract on line, where you may draw inspiration reading it.

RIP Rothovius, who peered at prognostications

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Let’s tip our hat to Andrew Rothovius of Milford, who died last week at age 86… Today, I celebrate Rothovius … as the man who helped The Telegraph cast a critical eye on one of New England’s most beloved institutions, the weather predictions trotted out by “The Old Farmer’s Almanac.”
At the request of this column, Rothovius examined the almanac’s three-day predictions throughout 1993, comparing them to what actually happened. He found that the 12-dozen predictions were correct almost half the time, as long as you gave them the benefit of the doubt: for example, he gave a “Rain, cold” prediction for a three-day stretch the thumbs up even if it rained a few hours and was sunny the rest of the time.

— So writes David Books in the Nashua Telegraph. (Other people, too, appreciate Rothovius.)

minimovie: Swordswallowing & side-effects

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

Filmmaker Bahram Sadeghi made a six-episode minimovie documentary about Ig Nobel Prize winners. We are showcasing one episode a day here. (If you can’t wait to see the others, watch the entire set in hi-def at the minimovie.org web site.)
Episode 6: What could be the side effects of swallowing a sword? That simple question led to the first full-size research among professional sword swallowers all over the world. Dan Meyer, President of the Sword Swallowers Association International and Brian Witcombe, radiologist, won the 2007 Medicine prize.

minimovie: Bottomless soup bowls

Monday, October 12th, 2009

Filmmaker Bahram Sadeghi made a six-episode minimovie documentary about Ig Nobel Prize winners. We are showcasing one episode a day here. (If you can’t wait to see the others, watch the entire set in hi-def at the minimovie.org web site.)
Episode 5: Brian Wansink explored the seemingly boundless appetites of human beings, by feeding them with a self-refilling bowl of soup. That creative experiment was good enough for the Nutrition prize in 2007.

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