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This blog is on temporary hiatus while I purchase my first home and haul myself, my husband, and our four cats halfway across the country to move into it.

(Astute readers may note that it has already been on de facto hiatus for some time. It’s a time of hectic transitions, what can I say?)


Aside from the science writers’ shindig at Fenway Park, I’d have to say the highlight of AAAS was indeed the presentation by the Annals of Improbable Research.

We heard a speech from the inventor of Clocky, the alarm clock that launches off your nightstand and zips around the room, forcing you to wake up and catch it. And another from a science writer who is searching for the holy grail of science writing: cataloging all instances of science writers claiming X is the holy grail of Y. Okay, I admit it, I’ve done it myself. But it wasn’t my fault, I swear — I was quoting a source!

We also sampled the Ig-Nobel-inspired Toscanini’s ice cream flavor: Yum-A-Moto Vanilla Twist, named in honor of Ig-Nobel-prizewinner Mayu Yamamoto for the discovery of a method to extract vanillin from cow dung.

But my personal favorite part of the event was Miss Sweetie Poo (an audience member brilliantly suggested that this might have been a better name for the ice cream flavor). Miss Sweetie Poo is an adorable 8-year-old girl who keeps presenters from talking too long. After a speech hits five minutes, she gets up onstage, looks sweetly up at the speaker, and repeats, loudly, as only an 8-year-old can: “Please stop! I’m bored!”

The Miss Sweetie Poo position, which goes to a new 8-year-old girl each year, was created to keep Ig Nobel Prize acceptance speeches from stretching interminably on and on. Having now witnessed the effect, I must say it is far more effective than the oh-so-subtle music fade-in used at the Oscars.

I must admit that I did not realize, when I wrote a few months ago about calculating the surface area of an elephant, that the esteemed authors of that study had received an Ig Nobel Prize in 2002 for their work. A hearty belated congratulations to you, K.P. Sreekumar and G. Nirmalan!

Other notable Ig Nobel-worthy research achievements over the years include:

LINGUISTICS: Juan Manuel Toro, Josep B. Trobalon and Núria Sebastián-Gallés, of Universitat de Barcelona, for showing that rats sometimes cannot tell the difference between a person speaking Japanese backwards and a person speaking Dutch backwards.

My favorite part is “sometimes,” which seems to imply that yes, on occasion, rats can distinguish backwards Japanese from backwards Dutch. I should add that in a past (highly scientific) experiment of my own, I and a colleague determined that cats are substantially more startled by backwards meowing (their own) than by forwards meowing (also their own). Read the rest of this entry »

Genital Arousal Disorder Adversely Impacts Women’s Lives


(Image pilfered from Vikusik on Flickr.)

Imagine what it would be like if this cute little dragonfly, cruising around your backyard, had a two-foot wingspan. It’s not sci-fi — it’s ancient history. Such giant dragonflies were a common sight in the swamps and coal forests of the Paleozoic era. Five-foot long millipedes, too.

Recent research gives clues as to why, and the answer may surprise you:

It’s a series of tubes.

Beetle air tubes

(A series of beetle tubes. Called tracheal tubes, these are the insect’s way of breathing. Bugs don’t bother with lungs. They just absorb air directly through their tracheal tubes, which penetrate throughout their bodies. Image stolen from an Argonne press release.)

To find out what the series of tubes has to do with the size of an insect, <shameless plug> check out my article about it in Discover </shameless plug>. Hint: it has to do with atmospheric oxygen concentration.

And if this makes you wish with all your heart that you could time travel back to the Paleozoic to see those 2-foot-wingspan dragonflies, you might try to get your hands on the WowWee DragonFly. It has a paltry 1-foot wingspan — but you get to control its flight.

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