2008 Ig Nobel Prize


The full list of winners:

Nutrition: Massimiliano Zampini and Charles Spence for their study showing that food actually tastes better if it sounds crunchier.

Peace: The Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology and the citizens of Switzerland for adopting the legal principle that plants have dignity.

Archaeology: Astolfo Gomes de Mello Araujo and Jose Carlos Marcelino for demonstrating that armadillos can turn the contents of an archaeological dig upside down.

Biology: Marie-Christine Cadiergues, Christel Joubert and Michel Franc for showing that fleas on dogs can jump higher than fleas on a cats.

Medicine: Dan Ariely for demonstrating that expensive fake medicine is more effective than cheap fake medicine.

Cognitive Science: Toshiyuki Nakagaki, Hiroyasu Yamada, Ryo Kobayashi, Atsushi Tero, Akio Ishiguro and Agota Toth for demonstrating that slime moulds can solve puzzles.

Economics: Geoffrey Miller, Joshua Tyber and Brent Jordan for discovering that the fertility cycle of a lap dancer affects her tip-earning potential.

Physics: Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith for proving that heaps of string or hair or almost anything else will inevitably tangle themselves up in knots.

Chemistry: Sheree Umpierre, Joseph Hill and Deborah Anderson for discovering that Coca-Cola is an effective spermicide (it was shared with C.Y. Hong, C.C. Shieh, P. Wu and B.N. Chiang who showed the opposite).

Literature: David Sims for his passionately written study “You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation within Organizations.”


Using World of Warcraft to study epidemics

Using analogies in research

Economist 2007.09

A plague in a computer game may have lessons for the real world

READERS of The Economist may not necessarily be familiar with the “World of Warcraft”. For those who are not, it is a cod-medieval online game in which goblins and trolls, warriors and wizards, and so on act out the fantasies of some 9m players who spend the rest of their lives in the alternative world of paper and pay-packets.

A couple of years ago the game’s owners, a Californian firm called Blizzard Entertainment, accidentally spiced things up by releasing a plague far more virulent than they had intended. It started in a sparsely inhabited area but soon found its way to the cities, where it wreaked havoc.

So far, so cod-medieval. However the plague, and the reactions of the game’s players to it, recently came to the attention of Eric Lofgren and Nina Fefferman, two epidemiologists at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Writing in this week’s Lancet Infectious Diseases, they propose that games such as “World of Warcraft” might be used to work out how people will react when faced with situations no researcher can ethically introduce into the real world.

One surprise was that players put themselves into risky situations more often than epidemiologists allow for in their models. An unexpectedly large fraction of players acted altruistically to protect their weaker friends. On the other hand, a significant number seemed intent on infecting as many other characters as possible—behaviour reminiscent of a small minority of people with AIDS. There was also a lot of dangerous curiosity, as players who were offline when the plague began started logging on only in order to find out what was happening, and thus risked the deaths of their characters.

It was this curiosity, in particular, that surprised Dr Fefferman. It is not trivial to give up safety in order to satisfy curiosity, even in a game, though she acknowledges that the cost is not equivalent to that of suffering an illness in the real world.

Using AI to run scientific experiments

Nature 427, 181 (15 January 2004); doi:10.1038/427181ba British team unveils an automated system that “originates hypotheses to explain observations, devises experiments to test these hypotheses, physically runs the experiments using a laboratory robot, interprets the results to falsify hypotheses inconsistent with the data, and then repeats the cycle”.

What’s more, when set loose on experiments to investigate the genetic control of important metabolic pathways in yeast, it performs more cost effectively than scientifically educated human volunteers.

Using long words does not make you look more intelligent

Students should read this paper!

Appl. Cognit. Psychol. 20: 139–156 (2006)
Published online 31 October 2005 in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com) DOI: 10.1002/acp.1178

Most texts on writing style encourage authors to avoid overly-complex words. However, a majority of undergraduates admit to deliberately increasing the complexity of their vocabulary so as to give the impression of intelligence. This paper explores the extent to which this strategy is effective. Experiments 1–3 manipulate complexity of texts and find a negative relationship between complexity and judged intelligence. This relationship held regardless of the quality of the original essay, and irrespective of the participants’ prior expectations of essay quality.

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Science tidbits from BBC

1. A Japanese man has survived for 24 days in cold weather and without food and water by falling into a state of "hibernation", his doctor has said. Mitsutaka Uchikoshi, 35, went missing on 7 October after going with friends to climb Mount Rokko, western Japan. link

2. Scientists report of two cases where female Komodo dragons have produced offspring without male contact. Tests revealed their eggs had developed without being fertilised by sperm – a process called parthenogenesis. link

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Census of seas reveals amazing forms of life – CNN.com

The amoeba is a very well-known single-cell organism, but now here is something even more interesting, a unicellular organism visible to the naked eye! Part of a series of amazing new discoveries about deep-sea life:

Link: Census of seas reveals amazing forms of life – CNN.com.

A single-cell creature big enough to see, in the Nazare Canyon off Portugal. The fragile new species was found 14,000 feet deep. It is enclosed within a plate-like shell, four-tenths of an inch in diameter, composed of mineral grains.

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Meteorite’s Organic Matter Older Than the Sun, Study Says

Link: Meteorite’s Organic Matter Older Than the Sun, Study Says.

Organic globules found in a meteorite that slammed into Canada’s Tagish Lake may be older than our sun, a new study says. The ancient materials could offer a glimpse into the solar system’s planet-building past and may even provide clues to how life on Earth first arose.

Scott Messenger of the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

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