Ig Nobel 2014: the winners

Ignobels
Kiyoshi Mabuchi, of Japan, demonstrates measuring the amount of friction between a shoe and a banana skin, and between a banana skin and the floor, when a person steps on a banana skin that’s on the floor during his acceptance speech after winning the physics award during a performance at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass.,Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa).

Have you ever heard about the Ig Nobels? Well, if the answer is negative, you definitely must find out more. The Ig Nobels are a very peculiar form of scientific award. In fact these prizes are awarded for achievements that first make people laugh then make them think.The Ig Nobel prize is handed out by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine at the Harvard University for silly sounding scientific discoveries that often have surprisingly practical applications.

Here it is the list of 2014 winners:

PHYSICS PRIZE [JAPAN]: Kiyoshi Mabuchi, Kensei Tanaka, Daichi Uchijima and Rina Sakai, for measuring the amount of friction between a shoe and a banana skin, and between a banana skin and the floor, when a person steps on a banana skin that’s on the floor.

REFERENCE: “Frictional Coefficient under Banana Skin,” Kiyoshi Mabuchi, Kensei Tanaka, Daichi Uchijima and Rina Sakai, Tribology Online 7, no. 3, 2012, pp. 147-151.

NEUROSCIENCE PRIZE [CHINA, CANADA]: Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, and Kang Lee, for trying to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast.

REFERENCE: “Seeing Jesus in Toast: Neural and Behavioral Correlates of Face Pareidolia,” Jiangang Liu, Jun Li, Lu Feng, Ling Li, Jie Tian, Kang Lee, Cortex, vol. 53, April 2014, Pages 60–77. The authors are at School of Computer and Information Technology, Beijing Jiaotong University, Xidian University, the Institute of Automation Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing, China, and the University of Toronto, Canada.

PSYCHOLOGY PRIZE [AUSTRALIA, UK, USA]: Peter K. Jonason, Amy Jones, and Minna Lyons, for amassing evidence that people who habitually stay up late are, on average, more self-admiring, more manipulative, and more psychopathic than people who habitually arise early in the morning.

REFERENCE: “Creatures of the Night: Chronotypes and the Dark Triad Traits,” Peter K. Jonason, Amy Jones, and Minna Lyons, Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 55, no. 5, 2013, pp. 538-541.

PUBLIC HEALTH PRIZE [CZECH REPUBLIC, JAPAN, USA, INDIA]: Jaroslav Flegr, Jan Havlíček and Jitka Hanušova-Lindova, and to David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan, Lisa Seyfried, for investigating whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat.

REFERENCE: “Changes in personality profile of young women with latent toxoplasmosis,” Jaroslav Flegr and Jan Havlicek, Folia Parasitologica, vol. 46, 1999, pp. 22-28.

REFERENCE: “Decreased level of psychobiological factor novelty seeking and lower intelligence in men latently infected with the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii Dopamine, a missing link between schizophrenia and toxoplasmosis?” Jaroslav Flegr, Marek Preiss, Jiřı́ Klose, Jan Havlı́ček, Martina Vitáková, and Petr Kodym, Biological Psychology, vol. 63, 2003, pp. 253–268.

REFERENCE: “Describing the Relationship between Cat Bites and Human Depression Using Data from an Electronic Health Record,” David Hanauer, Naren Ramakrishnan, Lisa Seyfried, PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 8, 2013, e70585.

BIOLOGY PRIZE [CZECH REPUBLIC, GERMANY, ZAMBIA]: Vlastimil Hart, Petra Nováková, Erich Pascal Malkemper, Sabine Begall, Vladimír Hanzal, Miloš Ježek, Tomáš Kušta, Veronika Němcová, Jana Adámková, Kateřina Benediktová, Jaroslav Červený and Hynek Burda, for carefully documenting that when dogs defecate and urinate, they prefer to align their body axis with Earth’s north-south geomagnetic field lines.

REFERENCE: “Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field,” Vlastimil Hart, Petra Nováková, Erich Pascal Malkemper, Sabine Begall, Vladimír Hanzal, Miloš Ježek, Tomáš Kušta, Veronika Němcová, Jana Adámková, Kateřina Benediktová, Jaroslav Červený and Hynek Burda, Frontiers in Zoology, 10:80, 27 December 27, 2013.

ART PRIZE [ITALY]: Marina de Tommaso, Michele Sardaro, and Paolo Livrea, for measuring the relative pain people suffer while looking at an ugly painting, rather than a pretty painting, while being shot [in the hand] by a powerful laser beam.

REFERENCE: “Aesthetic value of paintings affects pain thresholds,” Marina de Tommaso, Michele Sardaro, and Paolo Livrea, Consciousness and Cognition, vol. 17, no. 4, 2008, pp. 1152-1162.

ECONOMICS PRIZE [ITALY]: ISTAT — the Italian government’s National Institute of Statistics, for proudly taking the lead in fulfilling the European Union mandate for each country to increase the official size of its national economy by including revenues from prostitution, illegal drug sales, smuggling, and all other unlawful financial transactions between willing participants.

REFERENCE: “Cambia il Sistema europeo dei conti nazionali e regionali – Sec2010“, ISTAT, 2014.

REFERENCE: “European System of National and Regional Accounts (ESA 2010),” Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2013.

MEDICINE PRIZE [USA, INDIA]: Ian Humphreys, Sonal Saraiya, Walter Belenky and James Dworkin, for treating “uncontrollable” nosebleeds, using the method of nasal-packing-with-strips-of-cured-pork.

REFERENCE: “Nasal Packing With Strips of Cured Pork as Treatment for Uncontrollable Epistaxis in a Patient with Glanzmann Thrombasthenia,” Ian Humphreys, Sonal Saraiya, Walter Belenky and James Dworkin, Annals of Otology, Rhinology and Laryngology, vol. 120, no. 11, November 2011, pp. 732-36.

ARCTIC SCIENCE PRIZE [NORWAY, GERMANY, USA, CANADA]: Eigil Reimers and Sindre Eftestøl, for testing how reindeer react to seeing humans who are disguised as polar bears.

REFERENCE: “Response Behaviors of Svalbard Reindeer towards Humans and Humans Disguised as Polar Bears on Edgeøya,” Eigil Reimers and Sindre Eftestøl, Arctic, Antarctic, and Alpine Research, vol. 44, no. 4, 2012, pp. 483-9.

NUTRITION PRIZE [SPAIN]: Raquel Rubio, Anna Jofré, Belén Martín, Teresa Aymerich, and Margarita Garriga, for their study titled “Characterization of Lactic Acid Bacteria Isolated from Infant Faeces as Potential Probiotic Starter Cultures for Fermented Sausages.”

REFERENCE: “Characterization of Lactic Acid Bacteria Isolated from Infant Faeces as Potential Probiotic Starter Cultures for Fermented Sausages,” Raquel Rubio, Anna Jofré, Belén Martín, Teresa Aymerich, Margarita Garriga, Food Microbiology, vol. 38, 2014, pp. 303-311.

If you want to learn more (or maybe submit an essay or research project) about the Ig Nobels visit the website www.improbable.com.

The recipe of Roman tablets

Even though we know thousand of ancient pharmacological and cosmetic recipes from the Greek and Latin literatures, archaeological discoveries of actual drugs, especially in good conditions, to be characterized from a chemical and botanical point of view, are very rare.

What ingredients did our ancestors use for the preparation of their drugs?

In 1974 a discovery came to help giving an answer to that question. Off the coast of Tuscany the shipwreck of a Roman boat was discovered, and explored during the 1980s and 1990s. The most accredited hypothesis is that the boat, known as the Relitto del Pozzino (Pozzino’s shipwreck), dates 120-140 BCE and that was a trading ship sailing from the Asia minor and Greece areas, carrying wine, glass cup and lamps.

pozzino relitto

The vessel was laying about 18 metres underwater in the Baratti’s gulf, not far from the remains of the important Etruscan city of Populonia, a key port along trade routes across the Mediterranean.

Various pharmacological preparations were also found, together with a surgery hook, a mortar 136 wooden drug vials and in particular several tin boxes. These boxes, called pyxides, were subjected to x-ray examination. The analysis showed something interesting inside one of the pyxides: five circular medicinal “tablets”. Due to the fact that they were sealed, the “tablets” were in a good state of conservation and completely dry, even though they were resting on the sea floor for a very long time.

pozzino tablets

In 2012, a team of Italian scientist, belonging to the Chemistry department of the Pisa’s University and the Evolutionary biology of the Florence’s University, under the supervision of the Superintendence for the Archaeology Heritage of Tuscany, analyzed these remains, combining chemical, mineralogical, and botanical investigations. The scientists used the most modern analytical techniques, like scanning electron microscope (SEM), Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR), X-ray powder diffraction (XRD), and gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS), with the aim to clarify their compositions and possible uses.

In order to characterize the composition of the materials, fragments were sampled from a broken tablet with a scalpel, dived into subsamples, and stored in glass containers.

The results showed that the disks’ components were about 80% inorganic with zinc as the main element (75%), along with silicon, and iron, as minor elements. For the organic part the analysis pointed out to the presence of starch, that was a well known ingredient of Roman cosmetics, beeswax, a mix of vegetal and animal derived fats, including olive oil, pine resin, that may have prevented the oil from going rancid and opposed microbes’ growth due to its antiseptic properties.

Tablet holder. Courtesy- Erika Ribechini

Comparing the results of these analysis with ancient collections of pharmacological recipes, proves that zinc oxide and hematite were used together in the treatment of eye diseases, as shown in one of Galen’s treatise, Medicines according to Places.

“Cleaned Cadmia (zinc oxide), 28 drams; hematite stone, burnt and washed, 24 drams; Cyprian ash (i.e. copper), 24 drams; myrrh, 48 drams; saffron, 4 drams; Spanish opium-poppy, 8 drams; white pepper, 30 grains; gum, 6 drams; dilute with Italian wine. Use with an egg” (Galen, Compositions of medicines according to Places 4.8, 12.774 Khun).

The efficacy of zinc compounds in treating human diseases suggests that zinc carbonate and hydroxycarbonate were the active compounds in the formulation of Pozzino’s tablets. Zinc oxide was considered important from a therapeutic point of view. It was obtained during the casting of copper from minerals also containing zinc ores, as reported by Pliny the Elder in Naturalis historia, and Dioscorides in De materia medica, describing different qualities of cadmia collected from the vaults or walls of the furnaces during copper production. They wrote how this side-product was useful for the eyes’ treatment and for general dermatological purposes.

The compositions and the old recipes described above give very little clues about the way the remedy should have been prepared and applied. We can imagine that all dry products should have been crushed together in a mortar, diluted in wine and moulded into tablets, dried and dissolved in a liquid, as water, wine, or egg (as suggested in the Galen’s recipe).

In a previous study on the Pozzino’s tablets, a US team from the Smithsonian’s Centre for Conservation and evolutionary Genetics, carried out a genetic analysis of the vegetal materials contained in the remains. Comparing the sequences of DNA fragments to a genetic database, the scientists identified many plants, including carrot, radish, parsley, celery, wild onion and cabbage. The results of this research suggested a different theory for the use of the pills. They could have been used for gastrointestinal disorders, and taken by the sailors during their long trips. So, were the Pozzino’s tablets medicines meant to cure sore eyes, or for painful bellies? Whatever the truth is, these findings, studies and debates would help to enhance our knowledge of the sophisticated ancient pharmaceutical world.

Purity

I found this funny comics in an amazing website, xkcd.com! Check it out!

 

 

purity

 

At the beginning I was reading the blog now and then (http://blog.xkcd.com/), but after a while I discovered the website with a big collection of comics, and I really liked it. Some days ago the creator of the blog, Randall Munroe, published a book, “What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions”, that contains the best posts from the blog and along with brand new weird and wonderful questions. The British edition has been launched just the last 4th of September. I can’t wait to read it!