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Mar. 17, 2009

Geeks Just Want to Have Fun

by Science Friday Education

This blog appears courtesy of Stevens Institute of Technology. You can find additional blogs from Alan S. Brown here.

By Alan S. Brown

Sword swallowers. The world's fastest barbeque lighter. A romantic opera whose resolution hinges on a Bose-Einstein condensate. Coke as a contraceptive-- and not. The first recorded incidence of homosexual necrophilia in the mallards. And a funny, fitting tribute to Darwin on his 200th anniversary.

It sounds like a demented version of European street theatre. Or maybe the contents of one of those quaintly kinky Victorian museums.

But no, it was actually the Annals of Improbable Results roadshow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. And irrefutable proof that, yes, geeks just want to have fun.

The Annals of Improbable Results (AIR) is a mock scientific journal that has been poking fun at science and engineering since 1995. It also awards Ig Nobel Prizes in 10 categories at an annual event that attracts thousands to Harvard University. Last year’s festivities (check the video) included a “Win a Date with Benoit Mandelbrot” contest. The 84-year-old Mandelbrot is probably the world’s most famous living mathematician and a founder of fractal theory.

The AIR roadshow includes past Ig Noble winners plus sketches of some routines for next year’s celebration.

Now, before getting telling you about the roadshow, I want to give you a flavor of some of the papers that appeared in previous issues of AIR.

Kansas is flatter than a pancake. Geologists compared a digital elevation model of Kansas with confocal laser microscopy and digital images of a pancake. Here is irrefutable proof (with equations) that Kansas is flatter than a pancake.

Apples and Oranges. When outted for lapsed logic, some folks squirm away by crying, “But you’re comparing apples and oranges.” A NASA researcher used Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy to compare apples and oranges. You know what? They’re not very different at all.

How to write a scientific paper. If you have read enough papers, this monograph makes sense: “The real purpose of introductions, of course, is to cite your own work.”

Electron band structure in germanium, my ass. An undergraduate wrote, “The exponential dependence of resistivity on temperature in germanium is found to be a great big lie.” His data looked as random as a former vice- president’s shotgun blast at a distant barn.

But our young hero did not despair: “Banking on my hopes that whoever grades this will just look at the pictures, I drew an exponential through my noise. I believe the apparent legitimacy is enhanced by the fact that I used a complicated computer program to make the fit. I understand this is the same process by which the top quark was discovered.” (Incidentally, he’s now working at Industrial Light & Magic.)
Anyway, you get the idea.

Now, if you just jump to the next blog, I’ll tell you about the show.

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