Thursday, September 20

Science can be improbably practical

As the impresario behind the Ig Nobel Prizes, Marc Abrahams is skilled at sniffing out what seems to be silly science — but often, there's a practical point behind the seeming silliness.
Take Elena Bodnar's bra, for example. No, really. Take it. The bra that Bodnar invented can be converted into two filter masks in the event of a Chernobyl-style radiation leak or other emergency. That combination of laughability and practicality is what earned the Ukrainian physician an Ig Nobel Prize for Public Health in 2009.
Abrahams recounts Bodnar's achievement and many other Ig-worthy innovations in a newly published book, "This Is Improbable," and he'll be adding to the store on Thursday night during the2012 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard University. The webcast gets under way at 7:15 p.m. ET. There'll be paper airplanes flying, Nobel laureates officiating, and opera singers premiering a work titled "The Intelligent Designer and the Universe."
You can expect this year's prizes to highlight improbable but not totally impractical scientific findings such as these nuggets from "This Is Improbable":
• Which ear is better for detecting when someone is telling a lie? If you can only afford to listen with one ear, make it the left one. A 1993 study published in the journal Neuropsychologia found that people did marginally better at discerning truth and lies when they heard it with the left ear only, as opposed to the right ear only. "It works, to the extent it works, only when a man does the lying," Abrahams writes. 
• How can you keep your stamina up when singing at a karaoke bar? 2003 studypublished in the Journal of Voice found that karaoke singers who kept themselves hydrated and took one-minute breaks between songs were able to keep singing for more than 100 minutes, as opposed to the 85-minute average for those who weren't allowed to have rest or rehydration. However, the scientists found that there was no difference in the quality of the singing.
• What's the best way to choose up sides for a basketball team? If team captains take alternate turns, the captain who chooses first gets an unfair advantage. It's fairer to go with an ABBABAAB pattern: Captain A makes choice No. 1, Captain B chooses No. 2 and 3, A chooses 4, B chooses 5, A chooses 6 and 7, B chooses 8. The same rule applies to pouring cups of coffee from a coffeepot, by the way. The research was published by the journal Complex Systems in 2003.
• Which restroom stall should I choose? This is one of the great unresolved questions of sanitation science, along with the perennial controversy over toilet-paper orientation. One study suggested that in a four-stall restroom, the stalls on the end are most used. A different study saw indications that there was more action in the middle stalls. "The traces of these intellectual expeditions, deposited over many years in layers upon the ground, form a sort of mental compost," Abrahams writes. "It sits, ripening, for future scholars to uncover."
Abrahams chuckled when I brought up the restroom-stall research during a telephone chat this week. "I think back to that study, and it really doesn't matter," he said. "There are lots of decisions in life you're asked to make every day where it doesn't matter. No matter what stall you choose, there's paper in all of 'em."
But in some cases, even Abrahams derives practical benefit from the strange studies that wind up on the Ig Nobel list. For example, Stanford University philosopher John Perry won the Literature Prize last year for his theory of structured procrastination. Simply put, if you're avoiding the No. 1 task on your to-do list, do task No. 2, 3 or 4 instead. It's even better if the unpleasant task on the top of your list is something you don't really need to do after all.
"When I read that, it really did change things for me," Abrahams said. "I adopted that as one of my personal guides every day. All day long, I'm cheating myself, happily."
The lesson is that seemingly silly science can change your life. That came through loud and clear in last week's Golden Goose Awards, which honored the folks behind the development of lasers, glow-in-the-dark proteins and coral-inspired bone grafts. All three of those innovations sprang from research projects that were at one time or another written off as frivolous or useless. Who knows? Maybe the same story will be told about Thursday night's Ig Nobel Prize winners.
"When anybody looks at any of these people and what they've done, however stunning the story is that you're seeing, that really is just the start of a much better and longer story," Abrahams said. "Unless that person got killed while doing it."

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