ig nobel dreams

RoyaljenlucHumor is truly a balm to the soul. Last night I joined the Spousal Unit for the dinner-and-entertainment portion of the Caltech Skeptic's Society Origins Conference, featuring the entire cast of the online Web-sitcom, Mr. Deity. Brian Keith Dalton, who plays the title role despite what he describes as his complete inability to act, is as charming and likable as his fictional counterpart. He showed several clips from Seasons 1 and 2, a blooper reel, and gave a few hints about what's to come in Season 3 (they begin shooting in November). The cast even acted out a couple of skits live, and despite his protestations of his lack of thespian gifts, Dalton only forgot his lines once — with hilarious results. Sometimes bloopers are even funnier than the finished product.

Last week also brought the 18th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony at Harvard University, sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research. Among my favorites from this year's roster of "winners" was the prize in cognitive science, awarded to a group of Japanese researchers for discovering that slime molds can solve puzzles. Now, I distinctly recall being unfavorably compared to slime mold in grade school by the bratty kid down the street (who had issues with me, for some reason). Other than that, Wikipedia — that veritable font of fascinating trivia — tells me that there is a graphic novel (Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind) in which a mutated slime mold devours entire cities, a la The Blob, and that there a comic called General Protection Fault in which "one character's poor hygiene leads to the development of a sentient species of slime mold in his apartment that split the rent with him." Does it also help him with the crossword puzzle?Slime

Scientifically, slime mold refers to tiny organisms that resemble amoeba and eat the micro-organisms found in decaying plants and such: they grow in the soil, on lawns (ever find a jelly-like substance on the grass? that's a slime mold), in the forest on fallen logs — even in mulch or the fallen leaves that clog up gutters. The mold itself is made up of lots of these organisms; I wasn't sure whether the Japanese research pertains to the collective behavior of the slime mold, or the component organisms, but Google yielded a couple of news articles that contained a few more details (the original research seems to date back to a paper in Nature in 2000).

Anyway, the Japanese researchers somehow managed to to get pieces of slime mold to move through a five-square-inch maze — laid out on a plate of agar — by placing food at both ends (exits) of the maze puzzle. Somehow, the slime mold found its way to the food (ground oat flakes); its "body" (whatever that means to slime mold) after eight hours filled only the parts of the maze that were the shortest route from one piece of food to the other. (Per this BBC News article, this is unusual because, "Normally the slime spreads out its network of tube-like 'legs,' called pseudopodia, to fill all the available space.") The researchers concluded that some kind of cellular computation appears to be happening. There's more information about this specific experiment in the linked articles, but the primitive intelligence of amoeba and other such organisms remains a healthy area of research; I blogged about similar research a couple of years ago.

Then there is this year's Ig Nobel Prize for Chemistry, awarding one-half of the prize to one team of scientists for discovering that Coca-Cola is an effective spermicide, and the other half of the prize to a second team for proving that it is not. (Snopes.com dismisses the "Coca-Cola kills sperm" case as an urban legend, noting, "Somehow I doubt this is what Coca-Cola meant by 'the pause that refreshes.'") Lots of common substances have been used as spermicides throughout human history, including honey, baking soda, and lemon juice solutions. The latter "has been shown to immobilize sperm in the laboratory," according to Wikipedia, but the entry also notes that there haven't really been any published studies on whether lemon juice solutions are therefore effective contraceptives — an important distinction.

I learned through my Google researches that the idea dates back to the 1950s, when the notion first emerged that the carbonic acid in the soft drink killed the sperm and the sugar destroyed the cells. Birth control options were pretty limited back then, which might explain why people actually resorted to this relatively cheap homegrown method — after all, the bottle itself was a handy "shake and shoot" applicator. See the Snopes article for the details; or Google "douche".

It wasn't really an effective method of birth control, for a variety of reasons, but the legend persisted, and in 1985 an article appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine reporting on experiments with various Coke formulations in the lab. The researchers concluded that Classic Coke was five times more effective in killing sperm than the reformulated "new" Coke — one more reason to hate that abomination — while my own soda of choice, Diet Coke, also proved quite effective. That said, they did not recommend actually using soft drinks as contraceptives. As the sarcasm-prone folks at Snopes put it, "Saying Diet Coke kills sperm is like saying a rubber glove makes a decent balloon." You can't just extrapolate that basic finding into an effective method of practical birth control.

Furthermore, Taiwanese researchers in subsequent years performed their own experiments and arrived at the opposite conclusion: "cola has little if any spermicidal effect." As recently as 1992, there was a Nigerian study that came to the same conclusion, although they found that something called Krest Bitter Lemon Drink actually fared quite well as a spermicide… so maybe lemon juice solutions will one day find their way into the Family Planning aisle at your local drugstore. Or not.

We've also all heard the rumor that Coca-Cola eats away your tooth enamel — and in fact, if you leave a tooth immersed in Coke long enough, it will disintegrate. It's the acidity, proponents of this theory argue, so Coke can be used to clean toilets, remove corrosion from car batteries and rust spots from car bumpers, even loosen a rusty bolt and eat away nails. Now, while I won't argue that drinking soda is actually good for your teeth (or one's overall health), it seems the corrosive properties of Coke have been greatly exaggerated — although baking a ham basted with Coca-Cola supposedly produces a delicious gravy. (I should try that sometime, should I ever find time again to cook.)

Sure, acidity is useful for cleaning purposes/stain removal: that's why vinegar is used sometimes as a household cleaner, but it's also commonly used in marinades and salad dressings. In fact, lots of foods (many of them healthy foods) contain acids, including fruit juices and buttermilk. Because these substances don't remain in the mouth for prolonged periods of time, it's not really the same thing as immersing a tooth or nail in Coke for a week or more, so while it's not great for your teeth, it's not going to utterly destroy them overnight, either. I'd still follow your dentist's advice on that score; better safe than toothless.

Finally, there is this year's Ig Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded to Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith for proving that heaps of string or hair will inevitably tangle if you put them in a box and shake it around a lot. Well, duh: probably even a slime mold could tell you that. But what the heck, the physicists decided to do the experiment anyway and publish a paper on the results, because they wanted to better understand "the factors governing the 'spontaneous' formation of various knots." Apparently, the more pliable the string, the more likely it is to knot spontaneously, and the longer the string, the more likely it is to form a knot.Tangle

I was surprised to learn that scientists have been studying knots for over 100 years. In 1867, no less a luminary than Lord Kelvin "proposed that atoms might be described s knots of swirling vortices," according to Raymer and Smith's paper. Kelvin's theory didn't really pan out, but it spawned other work in this area: knots are currently studies in polymer physics, statistical mechanics, quantum field theory, and DNA biochemistry: "Knotting and unknotting of DNA molecules occurs in living cells and viruses and has been extensively studied by molecular biologists," they write. You learn something new every day!

There was a similar experiment on which kind of hair — straight or curly — tended to snarl more easily that made the news last year, conducted by biophysicist Jean-Baptiste Masson of the Ecole Polytechnique in France. (h/t: Feministe) Masson had hairdressers count tangles every afternoon (so the hair had time to snarl) for an entire week in the hair of 212 subjects: 123 with striaght hair and 89 with curls. The result: straight hair tangled twice as much as curly hair.

Masson's work probably isn't going to save anyone's hair from getting tangled, but it does have a practical application: it could improve Velcro, which is all about hairy fibers getting tightly tangled up, perhaps by increasing the tension of Velcro fibers to make them a little bit straighter.

So those were my favorites from this year's crop of Ig Nobelists, although this is not to slight the others in the least. Here's the rest of the recipients:

Archaeology: Astolfo Gomes de Mello Araujo and Jose Carlos Marcelino, for showing that armadillos can mix up the contents of an archaeological site.

Biology: Marie-Christine Cadiergues, Christel Joubert, and Michel Franc, for discovering that fleas that live on dogs jump higher than fleas that live on cats. (Our Resident Feline is very interested in this finding.)

Economics: Geoffrey Miller, Joshua Tyber, and Brent Jordan, for discovering that exotic dancers earn more when at peak fertility. (The field work for that study must have been a blast — and the itemized expenses must have looked mighty suspicious on the annual budget report.)

Literature: David Sims, for his study, "You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation within Organizations."

Medicine: Dan Ariely for demonstrating that expensive counterfeit drugs are more effective than inexpensive counterfeit drugs.

Nutrition: Massamiliano Zampini and Charles Spence, for demonstrating that food tastes better when it sounds more appealing. (Probably true, especially when described in a foreign language: compare people's reactions to "foie gras" and "the liver of a duck or goose that has been specially fattened by force-feeding the animal to bursting point" — a procedure known as "gavage." And yes, I occasionally indulge anyway.)

Peace: The Swiss Federal Ethics Committee on Non-Human Biotechnology and the citizens of Switzerland, for adopting the legal principle that plants have dignity. (Slime molds will soon be demanding similar civil rights.)

It's that time of year again, when Donors Choose holds its Bloggers Challenge: over 3000 K-12 teachers have signed up asking for funds to help them in the classroom; education funding being so woefully inadequate, sometimes just a few hundred dollars can make a big difference.  Many of the SciBlings over at Science Blogs are participating, including my buddy Chad at Uncertain Principles. But this year I have divided loyalties, as the Spousal Unit and his merry band of co-bloggers at Cosmic Variance are also participating. As the Spousal Unit goes, so goes my nation: Cocktail Party Physics and Twisted Physics thus are joining forces with Cosmic Variance. It's all for a good cause, and there's far too many worthy projects than can possibly be funded. Head on over to either CV or Chad's place if you feel moved to donate.

6 thoughts on “ig nobel dreams”

  1. I had a Krest bitter lemon encounter in Zambia some time back when, doing a documentary with street children, i asked a young prostitute what she used as a contraceptive. Fascinating to hear it has actually been studied!
    I was wondering if you could check my application of Newtonian physics to pole-dancing http://www.holeyvision.blogspot.com. I understand you are very busy so worry not if you don’t get over but I was thinking how as a pice of educational stand up – -a physics lesson taught via pole dancer might truly inspire the twisted teenage contingent of the Western hemisphere.
    Tanvir (Chimera)

  2. At first I was a little confused by the criteria used for the Ig Nobel awards, but the Journal of Improbable Research lays it out nicely: To laugh and then to think. At the risk of a dreadful pun, this is a noble goal indeed. I especially like the “string in a box” research, because I suspect it has something to do with the behavior of constrained random systems in general. I have to think about this a bit.
    And although I am late to the party, kudos on your last post where you discuss lowered expectations. I am afraid that intelligence is still viewed by many as something vaguely rude.

  3. Part of me is glad that I don’t do research watching slime molds move, but another part wants to know what their top speed is.
    My best friend worked on knot theory for a while. Completely different than mathematics of bubbles, but vaguely related to topography, I think. http://www.ics.uci.edu/~eppstein/junkyard/knot.html
    Re: birthcontrol.; I’m given to understand that sponges soaked in olive oil are pretty effective. So are talismans taken with abstinence. In case you don’t have enough to do today, there’s a good history here http://www.plannedparenthood.org/resources/research-papers/bc-history-6547.htm
    And the medicine…. I saw a study before that people responded better to drugs (or was it placebos?) when they thought they were expensive. Counterfeit drugs would be redundant with that, no? Not surprisingly, people also think purportedly expensive wines taste better. Probably this applies to a lot of things. Should push it further and found out if that’s why extremely rich people are willing to pay disproportionately high prices and wait ridiculously long period for many products. Perception of quality and rarity?

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