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Image - Erik van Erne

Image – Erik van Erne

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Jesus on toast

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Slippery banana study wins Ig Nobel

Research that investigated why bananas are slippery when you step on them has won one of this year’s Ig Nobel prizes.

The spoof awards that have become almost as famous as the real Nobels were handed out at their annual ceremony at Harvard University, US.

Kiyoshi Mabuchi’s Japanese team measured the friction of banana skin in the lab, and showed why apple and orange peel are not quite so hazardous.

The Kitasato University group received the physics Ig for their insights.

It is another classic of its type. The awards, which are run by the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research, can seem quite ridiculous at first.

But when you delve deeper, you often see a serious intention beyond just the tongue in cheek.

The Japanese scientists are interested in how friction and lubrication affect the movement of our limbs.

The polysaccharide follicular gels that give banana skins their slippery properties are also found in the membranes where our bones meet.

“This concept will help to design a joint prosthesis,” Kiyoshi Mabuchi told BBC News.

In their paper, the Kitasato group describes its experimental set-up

Another winner this year was the study that examined the brains of people who see the face of Jesus and other figures in slices of toast. The work won the neuroscience Ig.

Kang Lee, from the University of Toronto, Canada, and colleagues showed their subjects pictures of “noise” – like the random speckles you used to get on old, out-of-tune TVs – to see what patterns the volunteers would identify.

The face of expectation: Jesus on toast

This tendency to see order in randomness – like a face in the charred areas of a piece of bread – is a well-established phenomenon called pareidolia.

Using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Lee and his team saw how the same parts of the brain light up when we see non-existent faces as when we see real ones.

“Interestingly, when you superimpose all the noise images where these people say they see faces, and subtract all the noise images in which they told us they couldn’t see faces – when we do this type of image processing, a face does actually show up,” Prof Lee said.

The Toronto scientist explained that this type of pattern recognition was hard-wired, and even chimps experienced it.

“The face you are going to see is determined by your personal expectations or beliefs,” he added.

“So, for example, Buddhists might not see Jesus on toast, but they might see a Buddha on toast.”

This is the 24th year of the Ig Nobels, and they just get bigger and bigger.

Marc Abrahams, the editor of Annals of Improbable Research, said scientists were clearly now doing studies with an eye to winning an Ig.

“We’re getting about 9,000 nominations a year. About 10% to 20% are self-nominations, but these entries hardly ever win,” he told BBC News.

“That’s generally because they are just trying to be funny. Whereas, those who win perhaps don’t start out that way, and only realise later on that what they are up to really is kind of funny.”

The full list of winners this year:

PHYSICS: Kiyoshi Mabuchi, of Kitasato University, Japan, and colleagues, for measuring the amount of friction between a shoe and a banana skin, and between a banana skin and the floor, when a person steps on a banana skin that’s on the floor.

NEUROSCIENCE: Kang Lee, of the University of Toronto, Canada, and colleagues for trying to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast.

PSYCHOLOGY: Peter Jonason, of the University of Western Sydney, Australia, and colleagues for amassing evidence that people who habitually stay up late are, on average, more self-admiring, more manipulative, and more psychopathic than people who habitually arise early in the morning.

PUBLIC HEALTH: Jaroslav Flegr, of Charles University, Czech Republic, and colleagues for investigating whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat.

BIOLOGY: Vlastimil Hart, of the Czech University of Life Sciences, and colleagues for carefully documenting that when dogs defecate and urinate, they prefer to align their body axis with Earth’s north-south geomagnetic field lines.

ART: Marina de Tommaso, of the University of Bari, Italy, and colleagues for measuring the relative pain people suffer while looking at an ugly painting, rather than a pretty painting, while being shot [in the hand] by a powerful laser beam.

ECONOMICS: The Italian government’s National Institute of Statistics, for proudly taking the lead in fulfilling the European Union mandate for each country to increase the official size of its national economy by including revenues from prostitution, illegal drug sales, smuggling, and all other unlawful financial transactions between willing participants.

MEDICINE: Ian Humphreys, of Michigan State University, US, and colleagues, for treating “uncontrollable” nosebleeds, using the method of nasal-packing-with-strips-of-cured-pork.

ARCTIC SCIENCE: Eigil Reimers, of the University of Oslo, Norway, and colleagues, for testing how reindeer react to seeing humans who are disguised as polar bears.

NUTRITION: Raquel Rubio, of IRTA, Spain, and colleagues, for their study titled “Characterization of Lactic Acid Bacteria Isolated from Infant Faeces as Potential Probiotic Starter Cultures for Fermented Sausages.”

Source: BBCNews

Europeans drawn from three ancient ‘tribes’

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The modern European gene pool was formed when three ancient populations mixed within the last 7,000 years, Nature journal reports.

Blue-eyed, swarthy hunters mingled with brown-eyed, pale skinned farmers as the latter swept into Europe from the Near East.

But another, mysterious population with Siberian affinities also contributed to the genetic landscape of the continent.

The findings are based on analysis of genomes from nine ancient Europeans.

Agriculture originated in the Near East – in modern Syria, Iraq and Israel – before expanding into Europe around 7,500 years ago.

Multiple lines of evidence suggested this new way of life was spread by a wave of migrants, who interbred with the indigenous European hunter-gatherers they encountered on the way.

But assumptions about European origins were based largely on the genetic patterns of living people. The science of analysing genomic DNA from ancient bones has put some of the prevailing theories to the test, throwing up a few surprises.

Genomic DNA contains the biochemical instructions for building a human, and resides within the nuclei of our cells.

In the new paper, Prof David Reich from the Harvard Medical School and colleagues studied the genomes of seven hunter-gatherers from Scandinavia, one hunter whose remains were found in a cave in Luxembourg and an early farmer from Stuttgart, Germany.

The hunters arrived in Europe thousands of years before the advent of agriculture, hunkered down in southern refuges during the Ice Age and then expanded during a period called the Mesolithic, after the ice sheets had retreated from central and northern Europe.

Their genetic profile is not a good match for any modern group of people, suggesting they were caught up in the farming wave of advance.

However, their genes live on in modern Europeans, to a greater extent in the north-east than in the south.

The early farmer genome showed a completely different pattern, however. Her genetic profile was a good match for modern people in Sardinia, and was rather different from the indigenous hunters.

But, puzzlingly, while the early farmers share genetic similarities with Near Eastern people at a global level, they are significantly different in other ways. Prof Reich suggests that more recent migrations in the farmers’ “homeland” may have diluted their genetic signal in that region today.

Prof Reich explained: “The only way we’ll be able to prove this is by getting ancient DNA samples along the potential trail from the Near East to Europe… and seeing if they genetically match these predictions or if they’re different.

“Maybe they’re different – that would be extremely interesting.”

Source: BBCNews Read and see more

Err on a G-spot

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The G-spot – the mysterious female erogenous zone – may not actually exist, says new research. But has the quest to find it helped or hindered womankind?

For years, it has been described as the Holy Grail of female sexual pleasure.

But for many women and their partners, the quest to find the so-called G-spot has ended in frustration.

Now new research suggests this elusive, erogenous zone supposed to be located on the front vaginal wall, may not exist.

Source: BBCNews Read more

Spinosaurus fossil

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‘Giant swimming dinosaur’ unearthed

Spinosaurus is thought to be the largest known carnivore and would have feasted on huge fish and sharks

A giant fossil, unearthed in the Sahara desert, has given scientists an unprecedented look at the largest-known carnivorous dinosaur: Spinosaurus.

The 95-million-year-old remains confirm a long-held theory: that this is the first-known swimming dinosaur.

Scientists say the beast had flat, paddle-like feet and nostrils on top of its crocodilian head that would allow it to submerge with ease.

The research is published in the journal Science.

Lead author Nizar Ibrahim, a palaeontologist from the University of Chicago, said: “It is a really bizarre dinosaur – there’s no real blueprint for it.

“It has a long neck, a long trunk, a long tail, a 7ft (2m) sail on its back and a snout like a crocodile.

“And when we look at the body proportions, the animal was clearly not as agile on land as other dinosaurs were, so I think it spent a substantial amount of time in the water.”

Source: BBCNews Read and see more

The painting reputed to make students fail exams

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Sir John Franklin’s fabled Arctic ship that vanished more than 160 years ago was found this week. But a painting related to its mysterious demise hanging in one university has been haunting exam students for decades, writes Tom Heyden.

“The polar bears made me do it,” are the eeriest words to emerge from the urban legend of Edwin Landseer’s painting – a grisly depiction of two polar bears hanging at Royal Holloway, University of London. Since the first exams were taken there in the 1920s and 1930s, it’s been a painting associated with failure. “If you sit directly in front of it in an exam, you will fail – unless it’s covered up,” goes the myth, according to the college’s curator Dr Laura MacCulloch.

The painting of two polar bears devouring a ship’s remains – as well as those of the humans onboard – was inspired by the mysterious disappearance of Sir John Franklin, who led two ships and 129 men to their doom in 1845 trying to chart the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. The macabre spectacle is probably enough to distract even the most conscientious student. But bad luck rumours started almost immediately. There’s an obvious connection to failure, says MacCulloch. I’m going to fail my exam just like they failed to find the Northwest Passage, one might conclude – and then I’ll get eaten by a polar bear.

In the 1970s, fear of the curse reached fever pitch, says MacCulloch, when a student point blank refused to be seated near it. “The poor registrar, who just wanted to get this exam underway, ran off and tried to find the biggest thing that she could to cover the picture,” she says. It turned out to be a massive union jack flag. Ever since, the same flag has adorned the painting every year during exams.

But as that tradition verges on four decades, the urban myth itself has diverged. Recent graduate Michaela Jones was told that a student during an exam had stared directly into one of the polar bears’ eyes. Trance-like, the student had then gone “mad” and killed herself – although not before etching the words “The polar bears made me do it” onto her exam paper. Or his paper. “I’ve heard it was a girl, I’ve heard it was a boy, I’ve heard about three [different] ways that they killed themselves,” says MacCulloch. Of course, the incident didn’t happen. No evidence exists to the contrary in the university’s archives.

Nevertheless, “students are quite superstitious,” says Jones. “If you speak to anyone at the uni there is a consensus that it’s true.” And although Jones acknowledges it may be a myth, she definitely wouldn’t want to sit an exam without the comfort of the covering flag. “It does relieve people’s fears a bit,” she says. Luckily for students at Royal Holloway, that tradition is there to stay for now, says MacCulloch.

Source: BBCNews

What is Magna Carta?

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Why are there so many Magna Cartas?

Magna Carta has gone on display at a newly created gallery in London

t is known by many as the document that ultimately resulted in modern democracy. So why are there so many versions around of Magna Carta?

Magna Carta is one of the most important, well-known documents in history and next year marks its 800th anniversary.

To celebrate this, London Metropolitan Archives is putting on display its version in a new heritage gallery.

“People imagine that it’s going to be really pretty, and that it’s going to be an illuminated manuscript, and it’s not, but that’s really interesting because it’s a working document,” said Geoff Pick, director.

“It was a negotiated peace treaty between warring sides.”

It is not the only one that is on display of course – there are in fact 17 copies of the Magna Carta which are known to have survived over the years.

But why are there so many?

The document was a peace treaty first agreed by King John in 1215 to appease rebel barons in the heart of battle.

Once the treaty was agreed, identical versions were copied out and sent to legal and religious officials across the country to make sure it was carried out.

About 250 copies were created, however it is impossible to know the exact figure as no official list was created. The ones which have survived are on display in places including Salisbury Cathedral, the British Library and the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Magna Carta was first agreed by King John on 15 June 1215

Magna Carta was reconfirmed six times by kings following conflicts with barons and would often be used by monarchs as a bargaining tool for more tax to support their military campaigns.

It was “I’ll reconfirm Magna Carta, if you let me do something else,” says Mr Pick.

Although there are many versions around, Mr Pick argues that the one the London Metropolitan Archives team looks after for the City of London Corporation is the most important.

This version, from 1297, is of historical interest because the king at the time, Edward I, allowed it to be confirmed in Parliament, meaning it was copied into the statute rolls and became law.

From that point, if a king wanted to change Magna Carta, he would change statute law, requiring the consent of Parliament, rather than reissuing the document.

There are three versions of the 1297 Magna Carta still in existence

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What is Magna Carta?

Magna Carta outlined basic rights with the principle that no one was above the law, including the king

It charted the right to a fair trial, and limits on taxation without representation

It inspired a number of other documents, including the US Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Only three clauses are still valid – the one guaranteeing the liberties of the English Church; the clause confirming the privileges of the city of London and other towns; and the clause that states that no free man shall be imprisoned without the lawful judgement of his equals

The British Library has two copies of the 1215 Magna Carta

Source: BBCNews Read more

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