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screencap from "Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony Promo" // Improbable Research

2015 Ig Nobel Prize Winners Announced, Chicken Rejoices

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screencap from "Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony Promo" // Improbable Research

Nearly all mammals urinate for the same amount of time, regardless of size. If you attach a stick to the rear end of a chicken, it will walk like a dinosaur (at least, we think). You can accurately diagnose acute appendicitis in a patient if they felt a lot of pain when their vehicle drove over speed bumps. A bee sting hurts when it’s delivered to the upper arm, but it hurts much, much more on the shaft of the penis, as one committed scientist can tell you from the painful experiment he conducted on himself.

These are a few of the admittedly odd research findings recognized last night in Boston by the Ig Nobel Prizes, perhaps science’s strangest—and funniest—award ceremony. Now in its 25th year, the Ig Nobels recognize “research that makes people laugh and then think,” as its tagline goes.

The Ig Nobels are the brainchild of Improbable Research, a multimedia publisher that covers “research that's maybe good or bad, important or trivial, valuable or worthless,” as the site relates, most notably through the magazine Annals of Improbable Research. Their finds are culled from some 2000 science journals.

Getting a laugh isn’t the only goal: “We also hope to spur people's curiosity, and to raise the question: How do you decide what's important and what's not, and what's real and what's not—in science and everywhere else?”

About 1100 people attended the sold-out, often goofy awards ceremony, held at Harvard’s Sanders Theater. The 10 winners, chosen from a pool of about 9000 nominees, received their prizes from actual Nobel laureates. They also routinely hammed it up on stage. Check out the scientists behind the appendicitis-speed bump study giving what is clearly an accurate depiction of a real-life scenario: 

Screencap from live webcast of ceremony

The full list of winning research is below. If you’re in the Boston area tomorrow, September 19, some winners will be discussing their research in a free public event at MIT. The Ig Informal Lectures will be held in MIT’s building 10, room 250, at 1 p.m.

CHEMISTRY

For inventing a chemical recipe to partially un-boil an egg. 

Winners: Callum Ormonde, Colin Raston, Tom Yuan, Stephan Kudlacek, Sameeran Kunche, Joshua N. Smith, William A. Brown, Kaitlin Pugliese, Tivoli Olsen, Mariam Iftikhar, and Gregory Weiss

Study: "Shear-Stress-Mediated Refolding of Proteins from Aggregates and Inclusion Bodies," published in ChemBioChem

PHYSICS

For testing the biological principle that nearly all mammals empty their bladders in about 21 seconds (plus or minus 13 seconds).

Winners: Patricia Yang, David Hu, Jonathan Pham, and Jerome Choo

Study: "Duration of Urination Does Not Change With Body Size," published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

LITERATURE

For discovering that the word "huh?" (or its equivalent) seems to exist in every human language—and for not being quite sure why.

Winners: Mark Dingemanse, Francisco Torreira, and Nick J. Enfield

Study: "Is 'Huh?' a universal word? Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items," published in PLOS ONE

MANAGEMENT

For discovering that many business leaders developed in childhood a fondness for risk-taking, when they experienced natural disasters that—for them—had no dire personal consequences.

Winners: Gennaro Bernile, Vineet Bhagwat, and P. Raghavendra Rau

Study: "What Doesn't Kill You Will Only Make You More Risk-Loving: Early-Life Disasters and CEO Behavior," published in the Journal of Finance

ECONOMICS

To the Bangkok Metropolitan Police, for offering to pay policemen extra cash if the policemen refuse to take bribes. (Many have criticized this tactic, by the way.)

MEDICINE

Awarded jointly to two groups for experiments to study the biomedical benefits or biomedical consequences of intense kissing (and other intimate, interpersonal activities).

Winners: Hajime Kimata; Jaroslava Durdiaková, Peter Celec, Natália Kamodyová, Tatiana Sedláčková, Gabriela Repiská, Barbara Sviežená, and Gabriel Minárik 

Studies: "Kissing Reduces Allergic Skin Wheal Responses and Plasma Neurotrophin Levels," published in Physiology & Behavior; "Reduction of Allergic Skin Weal Responses by Sexual Intercourse in Allergic Patients," published in Sexual and Relationship Therapy; "Kissing Selectively Decreases Allergen-Specific IgE Production in Atopic Patients," published in Journal of Psychosomatic Research; and "Prevalence and Persistence of Male DNA Identified in Mixed Saliva Samples After Intense Kissing," published in Forensic Science International Genetics

MATHEMATICS

For trying to use mathematical techniques to determine whether and how Moulay Ismael the Bloodthirsty, the Sharifian Emperor of Morocco, managed, during the years from 1697 through 1727, to father 888 children.

Winners: Elisabeth Oberzaucher and Karl Grammer 

Study: "The Case of Moulay Ismael—Fact or Fancy?" published in PLOS ONE

BIOLOGY

For observing that when you attach a weighted stick to the rear end of a chicken, the chicken then walks in a manner similar to that in which dinosaurs are thought to have walked.

Winners: Bruno Grossi, Omar Larach, Mauricio Canals, Rodrigo A. Vásquez, José Iriarte-Díaz 

Study: "Walking Like Dinosaurs: Chickens with Artificial Tails Provide Clues about Non-Avian Theropod Locomotion," published in PLOS ONE

DIAGNOSTIC MEDICINE

For determining that acute appendicitis can be accurately diagnosed by the amount of pain evident when the patient is driven over speed bumps.

Winners: Diallah Karim, Anthony Harnden, Nigel D'Souza, Andrew Huang, Abdel Kader Allouni, Helen Ashdown, Richard J. Stevens, and Simon Kreckler 

Study: "Pain Over Speed Bumps in Diagnosis of Acute Appendicitis: Diagnostic Accuracy Study," published in BMJ

PHYSIOLOGY and ENTOMOLOGY PRIZE

Awarded jointly, for painstakingly creating the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, which rates the relative pain people feel when stung by various insects; and for carefully arranging for honey bees to sting repeatedly on 25 different locations on the body, to learn which locations are the least painful (skull, middle toe tip, and upper arm) and most painful (the nostril, upper lip, and penis shaft).

Winners: Justin Schmidt and Michael L. Smith 

Studies: "Hemolytic Activities of Stinging Insect Venoms,"  published in the Archives of Insect Biochemistry and Physiology; and "Honey Bee Sting Pain Index by Body Location," published in PeerJ

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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