Umbrellas blowing inside out – why’s it funny?

July 12th, 2018

What’s funny about watching someone struggle with an unruly umbrella? Few, if any, have come up with a better explanation than W H Auden who took a stab at it in 1952, and came up with two reasons :

“a) An umbrella is a mechanism designed by man to function in a particular manner, and its existence and effectiveness as a protection depend upon man’s understanding of physical laws. An umbrella turning inside out is funnier than a hat blowing off because an umbrella is made to be opened, to change its shape when its owner wills. It now continues to change its shape, in obedience to the same laws, but against his will.

b) The activating agent, the wind, is invisible, so the cause of the umbrella turning inside out appears to lie in the umbrella itself. It is not particularly funny if a tile falls and makes a hole in the umbrella, because the cause is visibly natural.”

See: ‘Notes on the Comic’, Thought: Fordham University Quarterly, Volume 27, Issue 1, Spring 1952. Also re-published in ‘The Dyer’s Hand : and other essays’, 1962

BONUS assignment [optional] Have you got a better explanation?

NEW SERIES OF EVENTS: Improbable Research Table Talks

July 11th, 2018

This month, we’ll begin doing a new kind of Improbable Research event: Improbable Research Table Talks. The first event will happen on Monday morning, July 16.

At each Improbable Research Table Talk, Marc Abrahams (editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, and founder of the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony) will chat with you about one or another research study that makes people laugh, then think. Some of these studies have won Ig Nobel Prizes; others we have explored in the magazine, in the podcast, etc.

These chats will be cozy, informal, and brief, around a table. Sometimes Marc will bring along a professor, physician, engineer, or other famous or infamous researcher.

Please join us!

The first Improbable Table Talk

The first talk will be Monday, July 16, 2018, at 10 am, at Toscanini’s Ice Cream, 159 First St., Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. It will include special guest researcher Gus Rancatore, proprietor of Toscanini’s. Bring friends and colleagues, if you like. The event is free.

Future Improbable Table Talks

We will announce many of these talks on the Improbable events schedule.

If you are in the Boston area (or not far beyond it), and would like to gather a few friends and host an Improbable Research Table Talk at your favorite coffee shop, office, lab, library, school, or other cozy place, please get in touch with us.

Primate Social Behavior in the Operating Room [research study]

July 11th, 2018

Ig Nobel Prize winner Frans de Waal and colleagues purlished a new study, using old techniques to study a little-studied kind of primate: human surgeons at work in an operating room.

The study is: “Ethological Observations of Social Behavior in the Operating Room,” Laura K. Jones, Bonnie Mowinski Jennings, Melinda K. Higgins, and Frans B.M. de Waal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,  no. 201716883, July 2, 2018. (Thanks to Philipp Weisser for bringing this to our attention.) The authors explain:

“Hierarchy and gender composition affect the balance of cooperation and conflict on surgical teams. In this investigation, behavior was quantified with methods traditionally used to study nonhuman primate groups. Observers used an ethogram to timestamp 6,348 spontaneous social interactions from 200 surgical procedures. Conflict and cooperation in the operating room [OR] showed a significant interaction effect with regard to professional roles (e.g., conflict was initiated mostly down the hierarchy between individuals several ranks apart) and by gender interaction (e.g., cooperation was better if the attending surgeon’s gender differed from that of the team majority)…. Instead of using post-hoc questionnaires, which are unreliable and often self-serving, we wanted to record actual behavior and relate it to hierarchy and gender. Our findings show that the OR is a microcosm of typical primate social tendencies.”

Katie Langen writes about the study, in Science magazine: “Yelling, cursing less likely to break out in operating rooms when female surgeons are present.”

The 2012 Ig Nobel Prize for anatomy was awarded to Frans de Waal and Jennifer Pokorny, for discovering that chimpanzees can identify other chimpanzees individually from seeing photographs of their rear ends.

REFERENCE for that prize-winning research: “Faces and Behinds: Chimpanzee Sex Perception” Frans B.M. de Waal and Jennifer J. Pokorny, Advanced Science Letters, vol. 1, 99–103, 2008.

Ig Nobel TICKETS go on sale TODAY at NOON

July 9th, 2018

TICKETS for the 28th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony will go on sale today, TUESDAY, JULY 10, 2018, at NOON.

Tickets will be available exclusively from the Harvard Box Office.

Two Iggy extras:

The benefits of watering plants with Club Soda (study)

July 9th, 2018

“We used six Helzine [sic] soleirolii, commonly known as Baby’s Tears, plants to conduct our experiment. The plants were divided into two groups, A and B. Both groups were placed in the same amount of sunlight and given the same soil. The plants were fed according to florist instructions. However instead of plain tap water, group B was fed Club Soda. Every day at 7 pm each plant had one of its shoots measured and recorded. This continued for ten days. At the end of the experiment, data was arranged and compared.”

The research team, from University of Colorado Boulder, US, determined that plants watered with Club Soda fared considerably better :

“Plants given carbonated water not only grew faster but also developed a healthier shade of green in comparison to plants given tap water. […] The nutrients in the Club Soda are like a double dose of essentials for plants.”

See : The Effect of Carbonated Water on Green Plants by Lindsay Danzell and Jessica Greenberg, CU Boulder, Fall 2002.

Note: The study doesn’t specify the brand used in the experiments – the photo shows, by way of an example, President’s Choice Club Soda.