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Archive for 'Research News'

Vibrating an Earthworm [Ig Informal Lecture]

Thursday, April 1st, 2021

Here is the Ig Informal Lecture by the winners of the 2020 Ig Nobel Physics Prize.

The Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements that make people LAUGH, then THINK. In the Ig Informal Lectures, some days after the ceremony, the new Ig Nobel Prize winners attempt to explain what they did, and why they did it. [In non-pandemic years, the lectures happen at MIT, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, two days after the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. But in the pandemic year 2020, it’s all happening online.]

The 2020 Ig Nobel Prize for Acoustics was awarded to Ivan Maksymov and Andrey Pototsky, for determining, experimentally, what happens to the shape of a living earthworm when one vibrates the earthworm at high frequency. They documented that research, in this study:

Unleashing the Lectures

We are releasing The Ig Informal Lectures, one at a time, here on, and on YouTube.

Prize Winner’s New Book About Death and Taxes and Follies

Tuesday, March 30th, 2021

Joel Slemrod, who was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for demonstrating a relationship between death and taxes, has a new book coming out.

The book is Rebellion, Rascals, and Revenue: Tax Follies and Wisdom through the Ages Hardcover, by Michael Keen and Joel Slemrod, published by Princeton University Press (scheduled publication date April 6, 2021).

The 2001 Ig Nobel Prize for economics was awarded to Joel Slemrod and Wojciech Kopczuk, for their conclusion that people find a way to postpone their deaths if that would qualify them for a lower rate on the inheritance tax.

They documented that research, in the study ”Dying to Save Taxes: Evidence from Estate Tax Returns on the Death Elasticity,” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. W8158, March 2001.

Facial Action Units for horses [study]

Monday, March 29th, 2021

“Until now the full capacity of horse facial expressions to convey a range of information has been largely overlooked.”

This lack of capacity was addressed by the most recent (2015) addition to the AnimalFACS system. (FACS stands for Facial Action Coding System)

EquiFACS which is

“a scientific observational tool for identifying and coding facial movements in domestic horse (Equus caballus).”

–  has defined 17 defined Action Units (Aus) for horses – which, for comparison, is 10 less than humans and 4 less than cats, but 1 more than dogs)

Details of the system can be found in: Wathan J, Burrows AM, Waller BM, McComb K (2015)  EquiFACS: The Equine Facial Action Coding System. PLOS ONE 10(9): e0137818.

Research research by Martin Gardiner











Baseball / Medical Skills: The Hidden Ball Trick

Thursday, March 25th, 2021

This decades-old medical report has received surprisingly little attention from the baseball community. Baseball season is about to begin again, in the USA. Please alert anyone to whom this study could be useful:

An Unusual Foreign Body in the Rectum—A Baseball: Report of a Case,” M.P. McDonald and D. Rosenthal, Diseases of the Colon and Rectum, vol. 20, 1977, pp. 56-7. The authors report:

The following case illustrates the problem of an incarcerated object in the rectum. We describe the unique technique used to remove the baseball….

A 49-year-old man complained of his inability to void when he came to the Letterman Army Medical Center Emergency Room….The patient then reluctantly described his recent activity. He and his sexual partner had celebrated a World Series victory of the Oakland Athletics by placing a baseball (hardball) in his rectum because, as he put it, “I’m oversexed.” The presence of the baseball was confirmed by radiography (Fig. 1) and proctologic examination.

Under spinal anesthesia, the rectum was dilated and manipulations, including hooking the ball and pulling downward (enough to rip the cover of the ball), injecting air above the ball and giving downward traction, and obstetrical forceps delivery, failed….

[Eventually, an] assistant exerted digital upward pressure through the rectum and, combined with a force enough to raise the patient off the table, the ball was delivered through [a] colotomy.

This procedure differs, in most ways, from the traditional form of baseball’s hidden ball trick.

Instability of an Unsteered Bicycle

Thursday, March 18th, 2021

A moving bicycle, when no one is riding it, is more stable than many people expect, but it is not completely stable. Here’s a curious look into the how and why of that:

It Takes Two Neurons to Ride a Bicycle,” Matthew Cook, at Caltech, demonstration at NIPS 4 (2004).

Cook explains:

Past attempts to get computers to ride bicycles have required an inordinate amount of learning time (1700 practice rides for a reinforcement learning approach [1], while still failing to be able to ride in a straight line), or have required an algebraic analysis of the exact equations of motion for the specific bicycle to be controlled [2, 3]. Mysteriously, humans do not need to do either of these when learning to ride a bicycle. Here we present a two-neuron network1 that can ride a bicycle in a desired direction (for example, towards a desired goal or along a desired path), which may be chosen or changed at run time…

Figure 2: Instability of an unsteered bicycle. This shows 800 runs of a bicycle being pushed to the right. For each run, the path of the front wheel on the ground is shown until the bicycle has fallen over. The unstable oscillatory nature is due to the subcritical speed of the bicycle, which loses further speed with each oscillation.

(Thanks to Lieven Scheire for bringing this to our attention.)

Improbable Research