Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The lighter side of science

If you think that scientists are a bunch of dry-as-dust, humorless nerds, all you have to do to realize you were wrong is to read about Thursday evening's gala ceremony.

Called the Ig Nobel Prizes, it's an event that's been taking place at Harvard University annually for the last 28 years.  The idea is to recognize research (and researchers) whose work is probably never going to receive an actual Nobel -- but deserves to be in the spotlight purely for the absurdity and humor value.

This year's recipients:
  • Marc A. Mitchell and David Wartinger, for a study showing that you have a 64% chance of passing a kidney stone if you ride on a rollercoaster.  To do the research, Mitchell and Wartinger took 3D-printed models of human kidneys on the Big Thunder Ride at Walt Disney World.  Twenty times.
  • Japanese gastroenterologists Akira Horiuchi and Yoshiko Nakayama, who wanted to find out if colonoscopies are uncomfortable if administered in a seated position, so they gave one to themselves.  It causes "mild discomfort," apparently.
  • A study by Alethea L. Blackler, Rafael Gomez, Vesna Popovic, and M. Helen Thompson that found people don't read instruction manuals.  (The title of this study bears mention; it's "Life's Too Short to RTFM.")
  • Research by Lindie H. Lianga, Douglas J. Brown, Huiwen Lian, Samuel Hanig, D. Lance Ferris, and Lisa M. Keeping finding that if you have an abusive boss, you'll feel better if you make (and skewer) a voodoo doll in his/her image.
  • A study by Paula M. S. Romão, Adília M. Alarcão, and César A. N. Viana that showed "spit-shines" actually work, by using spit to clean eighteenth-century sculptures.
  • Research by John M. Barry, Bruce Blank, and Michael Boileau to see if you could find out if guys were getting hard-ons while they were asleep by wrapping postage stamps around their penises before bed, and checking the next morning for tears in the perforations.  Turns out you can.
Some of these seem to me to fall into the "you needed to do research to find that out?" category.  Like the reading-the-manual one.  I'm the worst ever about this.  When we get something that needs assembly, my first step is always to yell, "Carol, can you help me with this?"  She's methodical and careful and makes sure I don't use my usual method, which is to jam things together whichever way seems right, a technique that always results in leftover parts and sub-optimal performance.

Also, I'm not at all shocked that skewering a voodoo doll would be highly satisfying.  I'm lucky enough to work for an awesome principal, but I've had bosses who I would have gladly stabbed in effigy.  A pity I didn't know about this sooner.

Oh, and the nocturnal erection study; are there guys who don't get erections while they're asleep?  I thought that was kind of hard-wired.

So to speak.

In any case, the winners each year get invited to a ceremony wherein they're wined and dined and given their cash prize (a $10 trillion bill from Zimbabwe, which is worth a few cents).  They then have to give an acceptance speech, which if it goes over sixty seconds is interrupted by an eight-year-old girl yelling, "Please stop, I'm bored" over and over until they give up.

As is usual with the Ig Nobel Ceremony, good times were had by all and sundry.  The audience is encourage to participate by folding up their programs into paper airplanes and throwing them at the presenters.

So that's this week's hilarity from the world of science.  And if you wanted more evidence of scientists having a great sense of humor, you should definitely check out The Journal of Irreproducible Results, which is the best science journal spoof in the world.

Now, y'all'll have to excuse me.  I'm heading off to the post office.  I seem to be out of stamps.


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a charming inquiry into a realm that scares a lot of people -- mathematics.  In The Universe and the Teacup, K. C. Cole investigates the beauty and wonder of that most abstract of disciplines, and even for -- especially for -- non-mathematical types, gives a window into a subject that is too often taught as an arbitrary set of rules for manipulating symbols.  Cole, in a lyrical and not-too-technical way, demonstrates brilliantly the truth of the words of Galileo -- "Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe."

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