Archive for 'Improbable Investigators'

Tracking glitter particles from a university building

Tuesday, May 1st, 2018

A team of forensic researchers from Soonchunhyang University in South Korea have determined that glitter can be used to track a person’s location in a university building.

Hong, S., Cho, H., Son, D. and Lee, S. (2015). A study on the distribution of glitter particles from an university building. Analytical Science and Technology, 28(4), pp.288-298.


“A distribution study of glitter was conducted from a local university building. The potential recipient surfaces chosen were the 1,000 chairs kept in 16 separate classrooms of the building. The surface of chairs contacting with buttocks and back of users were tape lifted with commercial adhesive tapes …  the authors could find that the classrooms where the same glitters were found were shared by a group of students who listen to the same class.”

After visual analysis with a microscope, the team used Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy to determine the amount of light absorbed by each piece of glitter, ensuring they could find matches of the same type of glitter. They conclude:

“This result indicates that the possibility of glitter finding from Korean violent crime scene is high.”

Bonus: Glitter can also be used to help act as a pregnancy test for rhinos

Predicting a Scientist’s Future Achievement Is Unpredictable?

Sunday, February 25th, 2018

The drive to measure—in advance!—success gets a whack in the computational knee, in this study about an Ig Nobel Prize (and also Nobel Prize) winner’s career:

Web of Science: Showing a Bug Today That Can Mislead Scientific Research Output’s Prediction,” Pablo Diniz Batista, Igor Marques-Carneiro, Leduc Hermeto de Almeida Fauth, and Marcia de Oliveira Reis Brandão, SAGE Open, January-March 2018, pp. 1-7. The authors, at the Brazilian Center for Research in Physics, explain:

[We] observe that the bibliometric data collected from the Web of Science are not reliable instruments for comparing scientists’ performance because we detected a disregarded subtlety in the database…. To investigate how it can affect scientometric analysis, we have chosen to follow the career of the 2010 winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, Andre Geim. This is not an arbitrary choice, because his example is an interesting one for [the] major objectives of this work….

In 2000, physicist Andre Geim was awarded the Ig Nobel for his experiments with frog’s levitation (Berry & Geim, 1997). It is important to consider that the Ig Nobel seems to be a kind of joke about scientific activity; however, it is able to provoke profound reflection on many aspects of science. In fact, its motto is “first make people laugh, and then make them think.” Moreover, 10 years later, Geim receives the Nobel Prize in Physics for the isolation of graphene (Novoselov et al., 2004)….

[Jorge] Hirsch proposes an index to predict the future of scientists’ merging quality and quantity into a single number. As far as we are concerned, this proposal of using mathematics probability or statistics, aiming to predict future research achievement, is not possible because the phase transition in a scientist’s career seems not to be predictable by an index or methodology as shown in this work through the example of the Nobel—and Ig Nobel—winner Andre Geim.

Here’s historic video of Andre Geim in his lab levitating a frog (and other things, too):

Improbable Research at AAAS — Saturday Night in Austin

Thursday, February 15th, 2018

Join us for the Improbable Research session at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting, in Austin Texas!

When: Saturday night, February 17, 8:00 pm.
Where: Hilton Austin Hotel— Salon H, Austin, Texas

The event will include will include:

This special session is open to the public, free of charge. This is the twenty-somethingth year we’ve done this kind of event at the AAAS meeting. It always draws an overflow crowd. So… we suggest you arrive a little early, to ensure finding a seat.

Here’s an image from one of the Ig Nobel Prize-winning studies we will discuss. The study asks the question “Can a cat be both a solid and a liquid?”

UPDATE: Nathan Mattise reports his experience of the event, for Ars Technica: “Science after hours: Barney’s aquatic traits and how pregnant women stay upright.”

A new life portrait of Troy, the inventive, prize-winning Grizzly Suit-of-Armor inventor

Thursday, January 25th, 2018

Troy Hurtubise enjoys and does not enjoy a deep biographical look at him that’s headlined “HE WAS A VIRAL SENSATION BEFORE THE INTERNET CHEAPENED THAT STATUS.” Troy was awarded a 1998 Ig Nobel Prize in the field of Safety Engineering, for developing and personally testing a suit of armor that is impervious to grizzly bears.

Here’s the documentary film about Troy, “Project Grizzly“, produced in 1996 by the National Film Board of Canada:

Troy has had many adventures, quite a few of which we have chronicled here. He is a an exemplar of perseverance and fortitude, and other qualities.

BONUS: Additional news today, about a different Ig Nobel Prize winner.

Sound Pressures Generated by Exploding Eggs

Wednesday, December 13th, 2017

The claims made in lawsuits – and the need to verify or disprove them – sometimes spark interesting research. The Acoustical Society of America’s Fall 2017 meeting included a report titled, “Sound pressures generated by exploding eggs”.

photo by D. Kessler

  Some eggs and some safety gear
  (photo by D. Kessler)

Investigators Anthony Nash and Lauren von Blohn began this research thanks to a lawsuit: A restaurant had hard-boiled an egg and then re-heated it in a microwave before serving it. When the customer bit into the egg, it exploded with enough force and heat to cause burns and, importantly for this research, possible hearing loss.

The court could not find data on whether an exploding egg might cause hearing loss, so it contacted acoustical consulting firm, Charles M. Salter Associates, where Nash and von Blohn began their research:

“An acoustical investigation was conducted using nearly 100 eggs that were re-heated under controlled conditions in a calibrated microwave oven. About a third of the re-heated, boiled eggs exploded outside the oven. For those eggs that did explode, their peak sound pressure levels ranged from 86 up to 133 decibels at a distance of 300 millimeters. The paper will describe the test protocols and discuss the results.”

Decibel Chart courtesy of

dB chart from (does not mention eggs)

Most claims of hearing damage come from noise experienced over a sustained period of time – longer than the milliseconds of an egg explosion – but in this case, the offending egg was considerably closer than 300 millimeters away when it exploded. Nash and von Blohn began a second round of research to study the possible effects of an “in-mouth explosion”.

The lawsuit was settled out of court, but the research it sparked remains for any future court cases.

(Thanks to D. Grodzins for bringing this article to our attention.)

HEARING BONUS: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have articles on the sonic dangers of Vuvuzelas and also of being a NASCAR driver or pit crew member. The CDC has declared October to be National Protect Your Hearing Month.

EGG BONUS: Cooked egg-white is white because the heat has changed how its proteins are folded. The 2015 Ig Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded for inventing a chemical recipe to partially un-boil an egg.

COURTROOM BONUS: Another example of a lawsuit whose premise required original research received the 2009 Ig Nobel Prize for investigating whether it is better to be smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or with an empty bottle.

A demonstration of the phenomenon