[FPSPACE] Using science for good, not evil

DwayneDay zirconic1 at earthlink.net
Mon Oct 4 13:19:07 EDT 2004


Yes, this is off-topic.  But who can resist a story about a study of the eatability of food dropped on the floor (complete with electron-microscope scans of gummi bears) or a patent for a "method of concealing partial baldness" (US patent #4,022,227)?


http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A4476-2004Oct3.html

Educational and Funny Research Honored 
Dropped Food, Suicide-Country Music Link Among Award-Winning Topics 

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 4, 2004; Page A09 

The King of Sweden was not there and the circumstances were a bit short of pompous, but 15 intrepid scientists attained a modicum of fame last week as this year's winners of coveted Ig Nobel Prizes.

Now in their 14th irreverent year, the prizes are awarded annually for accomplishments in medicine, physics and other disciplines. But unlike their Ig-free counterparts, these awards -- sponsored by the science humor magazine, the Annals of Improbable Research -- honor accomplishments that are both educational and funny. 

This year's recipients, who were handed their prizes by real-life Nobel laureates at a Harvard ceremony Thursday night, included two sociology professors who found a link between country music and suicide; a physicist who figured out how Hula Hoops stay up; a former police officer who co-invented and patented the comb-over; and a 17-year-old who conducted what is believed to be the first scientific test of the "five-second rule" -- the popular dictum that says it is okay to eat food that has fallen on the floor if you pick it up within five seconds.

"The Ig Nobels can help get people curious about things they might otherwise overlook," said Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals and founder of the prizes. "Nothing would be called a breakthrough if it didn't appear impossible or probably even crazy beforehand."

Al Teich, director of science and policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science -- a serious organization that publishes the serious journal Science -- said he is a fan of the Ig Nobels because they show that "scientific methods can be applied to problems that you don't originally think of as being susceptible to science." 

They also help humanize scientists, he wrote in an e-mail.

"Politicians have the Gridiron Dinner. Scientists have the Ig Nobel Prizes. It's a chance to let down our hair (those of us who have it), have some fun, and let ourselves and the world know that we don't take ourselves quite as seriously as most people might think."

For those not blessed with enough hair to let down, but with just enough to comb across, there is, of course, the comb-over -- an imperfect yet enduringly popular invention for which the world owes a measure of thanks to Donald J. Smith of Orlando and his father, the late Frank J. Smith, this year's winners of the Ig Nobel in Engineering.

Smith the elder, a pipe fitter and plumber who died in 1985, was short on education but was a real "idea man," son Donald said in an interview last week. One of his ideas had to do with a better way to make hair on the side of the head stay put on top.

"Like most of his good ideas, it was over a gallon of his homemade wine," Smith said.

U.S. patent #4,022,227, "Method of concealing partial baldness," was issued to the father-son duo on May 10, 1977. It involved a precise method of folding, from side to top, what little hair a person might have. It worked better with a spray, the exact ingredients of which the Smiths tinkered with to get the strength and stickiness just right.

"It lasted all damn day," said Smith, a retired police officer. 

Men depressed about going bald may want to avoid country music, according to James Gundlach, a sociologist at Auburn University in Alabama, and Steven Stack of Wayne State University in Detroit. Their discovery that listening to such music seems to increase people's risk of suicide won them this year's Ig Nobel in Medicine.

It started when Gundlach and his students found that suicide rates in Nashville were much higher than predicted by variables known to be correlated with suicide risk, including divorce and unemployment rates and the percentage of people who are Roman Catholic.

"Everyone in the class said 'country music!' " Gundlach said in an interview.

Further research, including analysis of country music lyrics, showed that the major themes -- including the travails of love, drinking alcohol as a way to deal with life's problems, and a sense of hopelessness about work and finances -- have all been linked to increased suicide risk. Country music listeners are also big gun owners. 

When Gundlach and Stack tallied suicide rates in 49 large metropolitan areas, they found that the rates went up in sync with the proportion of radio air time devoted to country music.

"We're not saying country music causes people to commit suicide," Gundlach said. But for those already contemplating that course, it probably does not help, he said.

This year's Ig Nobel in Physics went to Ramesh Balasubramaniam of the University of Ottawa and Michael Turvey of both the University of Connecticut and Yale, for their ground-breaking dissection of the dynamics of Hula Hooping.

As reported in the March 12 online issue of the journal Biological Cybernetics, the team used a magnetic motion tracking system to record the movements of seven paid "intermediate-level" Hula Hoopers, then applied the "Karhunen-Loève decomposition" to the "kinematics of the lower limbs" to see if the "vertical suspension mode and an oscillatory fore-aft mode . . . might stabilize the hoop's angular momentum."

For those who don't want to read the 15-page paper, replete with some daunting equations, the short answer, Turvey said, is "basically, yes."

When it comes to applying the tools of science to everyday phenomena, though, perhaps no one is more deserving of an Ig Nobel than Jillian Clarke. As a high school senior in a University of Illinois mentoring program last summer, Clarke literally put the "five-second rule" under the microscope.

First she surveyed 100 adults' attitudes about the rule. She found that women are more likely than men to eat food that has fallen on the floor, and that cookies and candy were most likely to be picked up and eaten, while broccoli and cauliflower were least likely.

Then she did microbial sampling of a variety of floors -- "elevators, kitchens and cafeterias, labs, bathrooms, classrooms, everywhere," said Clarke, now a freshman at Howard University.

Gratifyingly, she found relatively low bacteria counts on most floors, suggesting that the health risk of eating from floors may be lower than many people think. But what about germy floors? To find out, Clarke dropped gummy bears and cookie pieces on floors she had coated with bacteria, then picked them up within five seconds and used culture plates and a scanning electron microscope to count the number of bacteria that clung to the treats.

Smooth floors transferred more of their bacteria to food than did rough floors. But in general, Clarke said, "We found consistently high numbers of bacteria" on the retrieved food, indicating that the popular rule will not save you if the floors are not clean.

For her novel study of a household truism -- and for conducting what may be the first electron microscopy study of gummy bears, which look "really shriveled" at super-high magnification, she said -- Clarke received this year's Ig Nobel in Public Health.

Alas, science will have to get by without her from here. Having peaked early in her career, she has decided to major in finance.



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