Ig Nobel 2014: the winners

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.


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





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!


Art of Science. The choice of the public

The sixth Art of Science competition hosted by Princeton University has already finished, and the 44 selected works were exposed from the 10th of May.

The following images are the three winners chosen by the public.

1- “Messenger Meshwork”. Shawn C. Little, Kristina S.Sinsimer, and Eric F. Wieschaus, Department of Molecular Biology.

ImageJ=1.46r unit=um



2- “Bridging the Gap”. Jason Wexler and Howard A. Stone, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

bridging the gap-peaople's second place


3- “Medusa”. Jamie Barr and Cliff Biangwynne, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and Molecular Biology.

art of science-people's third place


To see all the works displayed during the exhibit go to the following website:http://www.princeton.edu/artofscience/gallery2013/.

Enjoy it!

The Eternit trial. A case not yet closed.

I ended the introductive post “Who am I?” saying that one goal of my blog is to make you laughing. On the other hand the post that I’m writing deals with a sad story happened in Italy. I wrote two pieces of paper in 2010 for the newspaper of the no profit organization “Noi per voi” (“Us for You”) which operates inside the pediatric hospital of Florence.

The term asbestos is known as Eternit in Italy, but this is a brand of asbestos cement registered in 1901 by Ludwich Hatscchek. From a scientific point of view, asbestos is a general name that includes a lot of silicates, already renowned by Greeks and nowadays used in the construction industry.

chrysotile asbestos cockburn museum uni Edinburgh

It is first mentioned in Greek sources, thus its name “Asbestos”, meaning inextinguishable.  Greeks and Romans not only noted that asbestos had thermal conductivity, was resistant to fire and acids but also noted that asbestos had harmful biological effects. The Greek geographer Strabo and the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder both observed the “sickness of the lungs” in the slaves that wove asbestos into cloths.

Asbestos related diseases (mesothelioma, carcinoma, pulmonary and larynx cancer, etc.) are one of the main causes of occupational health in the workplace today. The most dangerous action is inhaling fibers of this material, and the fact that there is a big gap of time between the start of exposing and the development of illness.



The discovery that asbestos is highly carcinogenic was made by Selikoff in 1964, but asbestos companies continued using asbestos in manufacturing and construction even after that news.

Now I’ll tell you the dismal story of the workers of Eternit (ETEX) in Casale Monferrato, a little town near Alessandria, Piemonte.


It was the 1906 when the factory of “the miraculous material” opened. The Schmidheiny family possessed a lot of asbestos materials factories all over the world. The last successor of the family was Stephan Schmidheiny, who took the whole group in his hands in 1975, when he was 28 years old. Today is one of the richest men on earth, he worked with Bill Clinton, and he was an ONU assistant for sustainable development.

At the same time the silent decimation of the workers and their families started, having inhaled the asbestos powder in the streets, houses and backyards.

After an initial investigation begun in 1999 as a consequence of the complaint of several Italians immigrated in Switzerland, claiming to be ill because of the Eternit, in 2004 the procurator of Turin, Raffaele Guarinello, and the magistrate Sara Panelli and Francesco Colace presented 200 sheets of documents and depositions of ex co-workers proving the misconduct of Schimdeiny and his colleague the Belgian Baron Jean-Luis de Cartier Marchienne who was a director and minority shareholder of Eternit Italy.

APRIL_6th_2009 Guarinello

The demand was 20 years in jail for both of them, for “causing a continuing disaster in health and environment and for willfully neglecting safety regulations in the workplace”. The billionaire and the baron are held responsible for the death of approximately 3,000 people in Italy, including employees, their family members and persons in the vicinity of four locations of Eternit Italy, Cavagnolo (Turin), Casale Monferrato (Alessandria), Rubiera (Reggio Emilia), e Bagnoli (Naples).

In 2009 the trial started and was followed out from the beginning. It was of a massive scale: over two thousand asbestos victims and representatives of more than sixty asbestos victims association.

Eternit italia.panorama

It is a story of courage and determination that was brought on by common people and by a straight public prosecutor. Guarinello has to be admired for being the first public prosecutor in Europe to undertake an important prosecution in asbestos field.

A lot of people were inside and outside the tribunal at every session, holding banners with writings as “asbestos away” and “stop the massacre”. “You have to think that Eternit gave as gift bags of asbestos powder to the employees”, tell Bruno Pesce, ex union organizer who in 1995 coordinated the “committee for the asbestos dispute”. It is documented not only in Italy that Eternit factory encouraged locals to collect asbestos waste material for private purposes, knowing his health dangers but neglecting to inform people about it.


Maria Ottone is 80 years old, her brother, and lives in Casale Monferrato since she born. Her sister-in-law and her father died. “My brother passed away in 50 days: mesothelioma. His wife died shortly after him: she used to wash his uniforms. I hope that the culpable will be condemned and that they have to pay the cleaning of the soil.” She said the day after the first session of the trial in 2011.

The 13th of February 2012 the tribunal of Turin returned a verdict: Schimedheiny and Marchienne were both sentenced to 16 years prison. They will have to pay millions of euros in damages to the claimants who joined the trial as civil parties. The verdicts are not effective until final, meaning the defendants have the right to go to a Court before they must undergo their verdicts.

eternit reclamation

The local committees and the victims’ relatives were satisfied by the sentence, although it opened new arguments on asbestos matter in Italy. The verdict is valid for the violations committed in Casale and Cavagnolo from the 13th August on. Previous crimes expired as those notified in Bagnoli and Rubiera. The day after the “victory” of Turin, the first critical reactions appeared. “If there is punishment it can’t be only in the name of some victims, it has to be in the name of everybody. We are waiting for answers from our solicitors”, it can be read on a forum dedicated to the trial Eternit.

fanpage it

Even though it is a sentence that opens the path for other similar civil trial against Eternit, public prosecutors in other countries may study the Turin trial as a precedent for bringing their own criminal trials against directors of national Eternit subsidiaries. Anyway it needs to be remembered that some victims have been forgotten. Is this justice?

I would like to thank for his help Gordon Averal, the author of the useful and complete website http://www.asbestosfocus.co.uk.

Who killed the Honey Bee? Maybe neonicotinoids

CCD frames

There is a growing body of scientific work linking neonicotinoids use to decline in populations of honey bees and other pollinators.

The recent publication of a study led by Dr Jeffrey Pettis of the US Department of Agriculture’s Bee Research Laboratory showed that bees deliberately exposed to even tiny amounts of the neonicotinoid pesticide, imidacloprid, were, on average three times more likely to become infected by the parasite, nosema, as those that had not.

Now, three pesticides routinely used by European farmers pose an “acute risk” to honey bees, according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). In three studies published yesterday, EFSA addresses long-standing concerns of beekeepers and scientists about dwindling populations of pollinator bees.

Perhaps it is not the only reason that explain the CCD (colony collapse disorder) phenomenon, but it seems to be an important co-factor.

The European authorities may decide not to follow this advice and not to take strong measures, namely an outright ban of these pesticides, on January 31st.

You can sign the following petition if you want to help the beekeepers in their campaign to ban neonicotinoids.


The following link is an interesting documentary about the problem of the pestilence of bees (colony collapse disorder).

This documentary deal with this ecological disaster and explores the reasons behind the crisis.

I spoke about this phenomenon in a previous post, written in Italian. I’m planning to translate it in English in the next few months.