Tag Archives: science

Just another evening among scientists

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One of the things I love about my life in Sweden, is the fact that I’m surrounded by academics almost 24/7. This by all means doesn’t imply that my friends and family back home are stupid, but there is just something about scientists and their sense of humor that makes a conversation that little bit more challenging. So yesterday, during the post-symposium free pizza-bar, I wrote down some of the jewels that made us crack up, but might have had any non-scientist in the company frown their eye-brows.

  • One of the PhD-students wanted another piece of pizza and although she preferred a Napolitana pizza that was on the next table, she settled for a Margarita that sat on our table because “the distance-to-taste ratio was more favorable” for the latter.
  • Another PhD student is Serbian, and we were joking on how former Yugoslavia seemed to keep falling apart, with new countries separating every year: “the half-life of Serbia is shorter than that of beryllium-8”.
    (in reference to radio-active decay) 
  • Our oldest professor has volunteered to be a mammalian cell-donor to anyone who finds him should he drop dead in the lab. One condition: he is to be second author on the paper when any results coming from his cells are published.
    (a number of groups in our lab use mammalian cells for experimentations. everyone who has contributed to a scientific discovery, gets a mention as an ‘author’ when the discovery is published – the higher in the author ranking, the higher the contribution was)
Rattler Wooden Puzzle

Image by dump9x via Flickr

  • We have a series of these little wooden brain teasers in our coffee rooms. When one of the guys finally managed to put one together, he exclaimed: “I conquered entropy!”.
    (entropy, in its simplest explanation, is a measure for the degree of chaos and solving a puzzle creates order from chaos.)
  • One student was talking about a former teacher of his, who was apparently very… curvy… . They had determined an estimation of her actual weight, not by putting her on a scale, but by studying the bending of the light caused by her body.
    (Einstein predicted that objects of large enough mass can bend light – this is used in astronomy to calculate masses for planets etc.)

The light-bending effects of a black hole.

Saturday “Nobel” Smörgåsbord

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So, now that all Nobel Prizes have been awarded, I thought this week’s Smörgåsbord could be about this year’s winners! After all, they are Swedish, and I am in Sweden…
and then I though maybe I didn’t really have the right background to be presenting all these Big Important People and their (honestly pretty astounding) research/accomplishments to you. But… I could give you a selection of my favorite Ig Nobel Prizes!

The what?!?

The Ig Nobel Prizes for Improbable Research, which honor achievements that make people laugh first, and then think.

Among the winners this year were Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse and her team, which perfected a method for collecting whale snot, Lianne Parkin and co-workers for showing that wearing socks over your shoes reduces the risk of slipping on ice, and Richard Stephens and colleagues, who won the Ig Nobel Price for Peace for confirming that swearing indeed helps relieve pain. Here is some more remarkable research that first makes you laugh, then think.

For those of us who have often tried to explain something by making analogies, the phrase: “You’re comparing apples and oranges!” is undoubtedly familiar, and is generally perceived as being a telling blow to the analogy since it is generally understood that apples and oranges cannot be compared. After being the recipient of just such an accusation, Scott A. Sandford from the NASA (!) Ames Research Center, Mountain View, California decided to see if this statement actually made sense.
“(…) the statement that something is like comparing apples and oranges is a kind of analogy itself. That is, denigrating an analogy by accusing it of comparing apples and oranges is, in and of itself, comparing apples and oranges.” He then proceeded to prove that apples and oranges can indeed be compared and, more importantly, are remarkably similar.
Interestingly, in Belgium we generally say: “You’re comparing apples and pears.”. I wonder if that makes more sense… .

The Peter Principle was first formulated by Laurence Peter, and published in 1969. The Principle states that men and women in hierarchies climb the professional ladder until they reach the level of maximum incompetence. While this may seem completely irrational, scientists have shown, using computer models, that if you assume that 1) the best members are rewarded with promotion and 2) the competence at the new level in the hierarchical structure does not depend on the competence at the previous level (since both levels often require different competences), the Peter Principle not only holds, but is

unavoidable and leads to an average decrease in efficiency of 10% – promoting the worst employees on the other hand increased efficiency by 12%. A more elaborate explanation can be found here.
I think it just comes down to this: if people are good at their jobs… let them do them! If people are not good at their jobs, well, maybe they’d better do something else. People who are doing a good job deserve a reward, but promotion may not be the best one.

In 1999, Dr. Len Fisher of Bath, England and Sydney, Australia, and professor Jean-Marc Vanden-Broeck of the University of East Anglia, England, and Belgium (oh, allow me some chauvinism while my country still exists!) shared the Ig Nobel Prize for Physics for calculating the optimal way to dunk a biscuit, and calculating how to make a teapot spout that does not drip, respectively. The latter research was actually supported by the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Air Force, and the National Science Foundation, since the mathematics that explains the flow of tea also apply to the resistance of waves to a ship’s hull. Which is… fascinating.
One year later, the Physics prize went to Andre Geim of the University of Nijmegen, the Netherlands, for using magnets to levitate a frog. Interestingly, this is the very same Andre Geim who won the (“real”) Nobel Prize for Physics this year for his completely unrelated (and by far less exciting) research on the two-dimensional molecule graphene.

Sleeping

Image by kaibara87 via Flickr

However, the life of a scientist can be hard. Ryan Shaun Baker found himself breaking up with his girlfriend after conducting exhaustive research on the factors influencing the amount of sleep he was getting. Based on whether or not he had attended social activities, read in bed, felt ill, … and whether he slept alone or not, he was forced to conclude that his girlfriend, in effect, proved to be sleep retardant. While I feel he did not have sufficient proof supporting his conclusions, I must say I appreciate a man who values a good night’s sleep.

 

And I haven’t even talked about the bra which can be converted to a protective face mask or that high-prized fake medicine is more effective than low-prized fake medicine, and all the questions that have been answered: is Kansas as flat as a pancake? (no, in fact, it is flatter), do cats always land on their feet? (only when they fall from at least 2 feet), how do you get girls interested in science? (with a good-looking (male) teacher) and why doesn’t a woodpecker get a headache?

Should you have your own little research going on which you think will benefit the world, you can send it in for publication in the Annals of Improbable Research, and/or nominate your or other’s research for the Ig Nobel Prizes next year. In each case, head over to their website if the above stories even mildly amused you… they got a lot more going on on there!