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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

Cowboy ‘trick rope physics’ revealed

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“Cowboy Craig” Ingram’s tricks in super-slow motion (Video courtesy of PT Brun)

A maths equation for a spinning lasso stunt performed by cowboys and cowgirls has been unravelled.

By studying trick roping as a science, a French physicist has taught himself to lasso like a rodeo veteran.

Anyone can teach themselves the famous “flat loop” by following some basic formulae, says Dr Pierre-Thomas Brun, of EPFL in Switzerland.

He showed off his “cowboy physics” skills at the American Physical Society meeting in Denver

Flamboyant moves include the Merry-Go-Round, the Wedding Ring, and the Texas Skip – considered the most difficult.

But while these loops spellbind our imagination, they also harbour useful mathematical secrets.

“Elastic threads are everywhere in our daily lives – from hair and textile yarns to DNA and undersea broadband cables. Even the honey you pour on your toast,” said Dr Brun who worked on the research with his colleagues, Dr Basile Audoly and Dr Neil Ribe.

“All of these threads twist and coil according to the same equations as the cowboy’s lasso.”

Studying fancy tricks like “spoke-jumping” and the “Kansas Tornado” could actually help us unravel coiling problems which plague industries like yarn spinning.

Trick roping has evolved from a straightforward cattle-catching tool into a performance art form, seen in western movies and at Mexican charreadas – competitions featuring traditional horsemen (charros).

It was made famous by vaudeville cowboy Will Rogers in the 1920s and 1930s.

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‘Beer goggle’ study wins Ig Nobel award

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Drinking alcoholic drinks makes people believe they are more attractive

A team of researchers who found that people think they are more attractive when drinking alcohol, have scooped an Ig Nobel prize for their work

The researchers from France and the US confirmed the “beer goggle effect” also works on oneself.

Ig Nobel awards are a humorous spoof-like version of their more sober cousins, the Nobel prizes.

Winners have 60 seconds to make a speech to avoid being booed off stage by an eight-year-old girl.

Titled “Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder”, the team were awarded one of the 10 awards (listed below) at a packed gala ceremony at Harvard University, US.

Other winners included a patent for trapping and ejecting airplane highjackers and a UK team scooped an Ig for observing that a cow is more likely to stand up the longer it has been lying down.

Penile amputation

The Peace Prize went to the president and state police of Belarus for making public applause illegal and having arrested a one-armed man for the offence. They did not attend the ceremony.

Penile amputations were the focus of the Public Health Prize. A team from Thailand recommended how to manage an epidemic of such amputations, but said their technique was not advised in cases where the penis had been partially eaten by a duck (after amputation).

Ig Nobel Prize The awards are presented by past Nobel laureates

Representing archaeology was a study that observed which bones dissolved when swallowing whole a dead shrew.

Brad Bushman of Ohio State University, US, and one of the five co-authors of the alcohol attractiveness study, said he was honoured that his team’s work had won an Ig.

In the study, people in a bar were asked how funny, original and attractive they found themselves. The higher their blood alcohol level the more attractive they thought they were.

Attractive drunks

The same effect was also found for those who only thought they had been drinking alcohol when in fact it was a non-alcoholic placebo drink.

“People have long observed that drunk people think others are more attractive but ours is the first study to find that drinking makes people think they are more attractive themselves,” Prof Bushman told the BBC.

“If you become drunk and think you are really attractive it might influence your thoughts and behaviour towards others. It illustrates that in human memory, the link between alcohol and attractiveness is pretty strong.”

Judges were also asked to rate how attractive they thought the participants were. The individuals who thought they were more attractive were not necessarily rated thus by judges.

Snoozing cows

“It was just an illusion in their mind. Although people may think they become more attractive when they become intoxicated, other [sober] people don’t think that,” added Prof Bushman.

Prize winners tend to see the Ig Nobels as a considerable honour and indeed seven of the 10 winners (one winner died in 2006) attended the ceremony in Cambridge, US, to accept the prizes at their own expense.

Cows lying down One study looked at the time between cows standing up and sitting down

Although a light-hearted event, the awards are handed out for work that is for the most part serious research. Prof Bushman said that his study significantly contributed to the existing literature.

And the study about cows standing up or lying down was important to be able to detect health problems early on, say its authors.

“We were surprised by the prize. We thought we did a decent piece of work and did not realise it made other people laugh,” lead author Bert Tolkamp from Scotland’s Rural College, UK, told BBC News. But he added that anything that promoted interest in science was very welcome.

The full list of 2013 Ig Nobel winners:

Medicine Prize: Masateru Uchiyama, Gi Zhang, Toshihito Hirai, Atsushi Amano, Hisashi Hashuda (Japan), Xiangyuan Jin (China/Japan) and Masanori Niimi (Japan/UK) for assessing the effect of listening to opera on mice heart transplant patients.

Psychology Prize: Laurent Bègue, Oulmann Zerhouni, Baptiste Subra, and Medhi Ourabah, (France), Brad Bushman (USA/UK/, the Netherlands/Poland) for confirming that people who think they are drunk also think they are more attractive.

Joint Prize in Biology and Astronomy: Marie Dacke (Sweden/Australia), Emily Baird, Eric Warrant (Sweden/Australia/Germany], Marcus Byrne (South Africa/UK) and Clarke Scholtz (South Africa), for discovering that when dung beetles get lost, they can navigate their way home by looking at the milky way.

Safety Engineering Prize: The late Gustano Pizzo (US), for inventing an electro-mechanical system to trap airplane hijackers. The system drops a hijacker through trap doors, seals him into a package, then drops the hijacker through the airplane’s specially-installed bomb bay doors through which he is parachuted to the ground where police, having been alerted by radio, await his arrival.

Physics Prize: Alberto Minetti (Italy/UK/Denmark/Switzerland), Yuri Ivanenko (Italy/Russia/France), Germana Cappellini, Francesco lacquaniti (Italy) and Nadia Dominici (Italy/Switzerland), for discovering that some people would be physically capable of running across the surface of a pond – if those people and that pond were on the Moon.

Chemistry Prize: Shinsuke Imai, Nobuaki Tsuge, Muneaki Tomotake, Yoshiaki Nagatome, Hidehiko Kumgai (Japan) and Toshiyuki Nagata (Japan/Germany), for discovering that the biochemical process by which onions make people cry is even more complicated than scientists previously realised.

Archaeology Prize: Brian Crandall (US) and Peter Stahl (Canada/US), for observing how the bones of a swallowed dead shrew dissolves inside the human digestive system

Peace Prize: Alexander Lukashenko, president of Belarus, for making it illegal to applaud in public, and to the Belarus State Police, for arresting a one-armed man for applauding.

Probability Prize: Bert Tolkamp (UK/the Netherlands), Marie Haskell, Fritha Langford. David Roberts, and Colin Morgan (UK), for making two related discoveries: First, that the longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely that cow will soon stand up; and second, that once a cow stands up, you cannot easily predict how soon that cow will lie down again.

Public Health Prize: Kasian Bhanganada, Tu Chayavatana, Chumporn Pongnumkul, Anunt Tonmukayakul, Piyasakol Sakolsatayadorn, Krit Komaratal, and Henry Wilde (Thailand), for the medical techniques of penile re-attachment after amputations (often by jealous wives). Techniques which they recommend, except in cases where the amputated penis had been partially eaten by a duck.

Ignoble, or Ig Nobel?

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The Ig Nobel Prizes are an American parody of the Nobel Prizes and are given each year in early October for ten unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research. The stated aim of the prizes is to “first make people laugh, and then make them think”. The awards are sometimes veiled criticism (or gentle satire). Organized by the scientific humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), they are presented by a group that includes Nobel Laureates at a ceremony at Harvard University’s Sanders Theater. – Wikipedia

Ig Nobel honours ponytail physics

A UK/US team that came up with an equation to predict the shape of a ponytail has earned itself an Ig Nobel.

Patrick Warren says the behaviour of hair is a very serious issue for his company, Unilever

Patrick Warren, Raymond Goldstein, Robin Ball and Joe Keller picked up their prestigious award at a sellout gala ceremony at Harvard University.

Igs are intended as a bit of a spoof on the more sober Nobel science prizes.

Other 2012 winners included teams that studied how chimps could recognise each other from their behinds and why coffee will spill out of a moving mug.

But although some of this celebrated research might sound daft, much of it is intended to tackle real-world problems and gets published in peer-reviewed, scholarly journals.

Dr Warren, who is a researcher for Unilever in the UK, said he was thrilled to pick up his Ig.

“I’m amazed that a piece of work I’ve done has attracted so much attention,” he told BBC News.

“My field, statistical physics, is not something that many will have heard of, so I’m really pleased we’ve done something that’s caught the imagination.”

His and his co-workers’ research produced what has become known as the “Ponytail Shape Equation”.

It takes into account the stiffness of the hair fibres on the head, the effects of gravity and the presence of the random curliness or waviness that is ubiquitous in human hair to model how a ponytail is likely to behave.

Together with a new quantity the team calls the Rapunzel Number, the equation can be used to predict the shape that hair will take when it is drawn behind the head and tied together.

“I’ve been working on this for a long time,” said Dr Warren. “At Unilever, as you can imagine, there is a lot of interest because we sell a lot of haircare products. But there are wider applications where you have a lot of fibres coming together, such as in fabrics.

“I’ve also wondered if we can contribute something to the whole area of computer animation. Hair, for example, is something that is very hard to make look natural in animated movies.”

Thursday’s Ig Nobel ceremony at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre was the 22nd since the American science humour magazine, Annals of Improbable Research, started the event.

The gala is always attended by real Nobel Laureates, who are tasked with handing out the prizes. Recipients get 60 seconds to make an acceptance speech. If they run over, a young girl will start to shout “boring”. Another tradition is for everyone in the theatre to throw paper planes.

The full list of 2012 Ig Nobel winners:

Psychology Prize: Anita Eerland and Rolf Zwaan (Netherlands) and Tulio Guadalupe (Peru/Russia/Netherlands) for their study Leaning to the Left Makes the Eiffel Tower Seem Smaller.

Peace Prize: The SKN Company (Russia) for converting old Russian ammunition into new diamonds.

Acoustics Prize: Kazutaka Kurihara and Koji Tsukada (Japan) for creating the SpeechJammer – a machine that disrupts a person’s speech by making them hear their own spoken words at a very slight delay.

Neuroscience Prize: Craig Bennett, Abigail Baird, Michael Miller, and George Wolford (US) for demonstrating that brain researchers, by using complicated instruments and simple statistics, can see meaningful brain activity anywhere – even in a dead salmon.

Chemistry Prize: Johan Pettersson (Sweden/Rwanada) for solving the puzzle of why, in certain houses in the town of Anderslöv, Sweden, people’s hair turned green.

Literature Prize: The US Government General Accountability Office for issuing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports.

Physics Prize: Joseph Keller (US), Raymond Goldstein (US/UK), Patrick Warren and Robin Ball (UK) for calculating the balance of forces that shape and move the hair in a human ponytail. Prof Keller was additionally given an Ig for work he contributed to on non-drip teapots in 1999 but for which he had been wrongly overlooked at the time.

Fluid Dynamics Prize: Rouslan Krechetnikov (US/Russia/Canada) and Hans Mayer (US) for studying the dynamics of liquid-sloshing, to learn what happens when a person walks while carrying a cup of coffee.

Anatomy Prize: Frans de Waal (Netherlands/US) and Jennifer Pokorny (US) for discovering that chimpanzees can identify other chimpanzees individually from seeing photographs of their rear ends.

Medicine Prize: Emmanuel Ben-Soussan and Michel Antonietti (France) for advising doctors who perform colonoscopies how to minimise the chance that their patients will explode.

This year’s prize

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