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FEEDBACK’s favourite prizes, the Ig Nobels, were handed out on 20 September in a packed ceremony at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. Their goal is to make people laugh, then think.
Feedback is proud to say that we spotted one Ig Nobel winner in advance. The neuroscience prize honours the discovery that sophisticated functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can record mental activity in a dead salmon (5 March 2011).
Craig M. Bennett, now at the University of California at Santa Barbara, was performing test runs for fMRI scans in a study of how adolescents react to photographs of people displaying emotions. To prevent damage to the machine, something must be inside during a scan, so Bennett stopped off on his way to work and bought a whole salmon. To ensure a proper control, he showed the fish the same photos as the adolescents. Later, he wondered what would happen if he ran the data through an analysis system that searched for evidence of brain activity. The scan showed “active voxel clusters in the salmon’s brain and spinal column,” he reports.
It was a statistical quirk, but a significant one. Bennett and his adviser George Wolford had been worrying that poor statistical analysis could produce false positives, and their data-analysis software had provided a perfect example. They reported their results in the Journal of Serendipitous and Unexpected Results, describing them as “an argument for multiple comparisons correction”.
Bennett is “pumped” to receive the Ig Nobel, which he shares with Wolford and co-authors Abigail Baird and Michael Miller.
The neuroscience prize honours the discovery that sophisticated functional magnetic resonance imaging could record mental activity in a dead salmon
NEW SCIENTIST’s news department spotted the winner of the psychology prize, honouring a new angle on how we look at numbers (10 December 2011, p 17). People who read words from left to right also order numbers the same way, with smaller ones on the left. Anita Eerland, now of the Open University in The Netherlands, tilted volunteers, without them realising it. She then asked them to estimate things that they were unlikely to know precisely - such as the height of the Eiffel Tower.
With help from Rolf Zwaan and Tulio Guadalupe, she found they tended to estimate lower values when they were tilted left than if they were upright or tilted right (Psychological Science, vol 22, p 1511). What this may mean for right or left-leaning politicians estimating budgets has yet to be quantified.
THIS year’s acoustics prize goes to two Japanese researchers for their serendipitous invention of the SpeechJammer to stop incessant chattering on cellphones and in long-winded presentations.
Kazutaka Kurihara of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology and Koji Tsukada of the Japan Science and Technology Agency were trying to improve oral presentation skills by alerting speakers when they were talking too fast. But motor-mouths on overdrive ignored warning lights and sounds.
Fresh inspiration came from a museum demonstration that playing a person’s words back to them a few hundred milliseconds later can disrupt their speech. The two built a prototype and told speakers to keep talking while they pointed it at them. Kurihara reports that “many participants’ speech was disturbed, then they began to laugh or smile because they felt it [was] funny”, as shown in their video (bit.ly/SpeechJam).
HOW can nations in disarmament talks be persuaded to discard stockpiles of weapons that cost them untold billions? Feedback is glad to see the peace prize awarded to SKN, a Russian company based in Snezhinsk, for finding a possible answer with a constructive use for surplus military explosives: it offers details at bit.ly/SKN-ND.
Briefly: detonating explosives under controlled conditions produces diamonds 4 to 100 nanometres in size. So you get all the fun of blowing things up, without killing or maiming anyone, but with a glittering and Treasury-pleasing reward.
OUR NEWS department also covered the discovery that was recognised by the anatomy prize: our chimpanzee cousins can match mug shots of other chimps in their group to photos of their rear ends. This shows that chimps have whole-body images of their peers, says Frans de Waal of Emory University, who shared the prize with Jennifer Pokorny, now at the University of California at Davis, for a paper in Advanced Science Letters (vol 1, p 99).
FINALLY, the Ig Nobel literature gong honoured bureaucratic skills polished to perfection at the US Government Accountability Office, which in May produced what the Ig Nobel committee describes as “a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports”. At only 32 pages, the document is concise by government standards, but we nonetheless dozed off trying to read it.