Celebrating our heroes of science

The IgNobel Stinker

The Stinker. Official mascot of the IgNobel Prizes

The winners of the 2014 IgNobel prizes have just been announced, and there’s an Australian among them. Peter K. Jonason from the University of Western Sydney shared the IgNobel for Psychology with Amy Jones and Minna Lyons, for providing 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.

We are filled with admiration.

CSIRO wasn’t among the winners this year, but we’re going to take the opportunity to boast about our earlier winners.

In 2011, David Rentz (formerly of CSIRO) and Darryl Gwynne shared the IgNobel Prize for biology, for their groundbreaking discovery that a certain kind of Australian beetle attempts to mate with stubby bottles. Specifically, that male Buprestid beetles (jewel beetles or metallic wood-boring beetles) had a particular attraction to brown stubbies – none of this fancy craft beer in clear glass for them. In true scientific spirit, having noticed this occurring, they took steps to confirm the mating hypothesis. They ruled out the beetles being attracted by beer residue – the stubby bottles were completely dry. Nor were the beetles interested in a discarded wine bottle nearby – suggesting the colour of the bottle was the source of the attraction.

They then placed several more stubby bottles within range of the male beetles, and found that these too were extremely appealing to the beetles. So appealing, in fact, that they didn’t give up of their own accord, but had to be physically dislodged from making their amorous advances.

This, of course, provides a valuable lesson about the unintended consequences of littering. Throwing away a stubby can cause grave disappointment for beetles.

But these are not our only IgNobelists.

In 2006, Nic Svenson and Piers Barnes took out the IgNobel in mathematics for working out the solution to a problem that has confounded photographers for many years: how many photos do you need to take to be sure no-one is blinking.

They managed to reduce it to a (fairly) simple rule of thumb. For groups of less than 20 people, take the number of people in the group and divide that number by three. If you take that number of photos you can be virtually certain one of them will be blink-free. If the light is bad, divide the number of people in the group by two, because there’s a greater chance people will be blinking whilst the shutter is open.

This doesn’t work as well when the groups get larger: the number of photos grows so large that the group is likely to lose patience. But as they point out, the more people in a photo, the less it matters if one of them is blinking. And you’ll be pleased to know this was all experimentally tested in the canteen at lunchtime.

So congratulations to this year’s winners, commiserations to the losers, and onwards and upwards for the spirit of inquiry that drives improbable research.

Next year, next year …

Things we like

Curiosity:  Person of the Year?

With our radio telescopes tracking her safely to her landing on Mars, naturally we love the latest Mars rover. But what do you think? Should Curiosity be named TIME’s Person of the Year? Or would you rather see the crown go to the Higgs boson? Have your say on their online poll


COSMOS holiday gift guide

While we’re talking particle physics, let the Higgs-teria continue… on your wrist. If you’re finding it hard to buy for the physicist or sci-fi nerd in your life, check out the COSMOS holiday gift guide.

A timeless Higgs boson watch.


Thanksgiving turducken-ducken

While Thanksgiving isn’t huge in Australia, we welcome a new bird-stuffing paradigm. Vi Hart‘s mathematically inspired turduckenen-duckenen mixes the mathematical and the delicious.


The best science books of 2012

To kick off the “best-of” season, Brain Pickings put together a list of the best science books of 2012. They’re an intersection of science, art, design and beautiful graphs.

Delightful and illuminating… Illustrations from ‘The Where, the Why, and the How’.

Things we like

Vermin celebration

How do drugs make us ‘high’? The clever folk at the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah created this animated game to help explain how drugs like marijuana and cocaine affect our brains.

Mouse Party animation

Be safe, go viral

Just the word safety makes most people yawn. How to make it something people care about? A catchy tune and adorable animation always helps. We tip our safety goggles to Metro Trains.

Personal action figure for Christmas?

A 3D printing photobooth in Tokyo now lets you get that gift you’ve always wanted- a little you.

3D action figure

Trippy soap bubbles

Soap bubbles that look like science fiction. Macro photography at its coolest.

Soap bubbles

Eclipse wonder

I think even non-geeks agree there is something very humbling and awe-inspiring about a solar eclipse. If you haven’t seen it already, we bring you totality.

Things we like

Did you see #Hendra trending on Twitter last week? Once we contained our excitement, we noticed some other pieces of awesome across the internets. Here are five, for your oohs, ahs and lols.

Big win for weedy seadragon

This stunner won the 2012 National Geographic Oceans Photography comp. High five to the amateur wildlife photographer Richard Wylie, for snapping the gorgeous photo off Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. His prize is a $27,000 photographic expedition to Alaska.

xkcd: the problem with scientists

If you haven’t yet discovered ‘the webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language’, now’s the time.

xkcd comic

Don’t get your slinky in a knot

For some Aussie slinky science, check out this slinky drop slow-mo from veritasium. Really, it’s HD and awesome.

The Elements, by Theodore Gray

An oldie but a goodie, this iPad app (and book and poster and card deck) is a thing of beauty… and great for a dinner party pop-quiz.

Theodore Gray's The Elements


Cram science factoids into 140 characters and you can write a book solely on Twitter. Here’s a taster “Plain English definition: 1 nanometre is the amount a man’s beard grows in the time it takes him to lift a razor to his face.” Grab the book, or you can follow @science140 on Twitter.

Things we like

Just when you thought the internet had blown up from Gangnam style saturation, we discovered some new winners. And they’re popular in our books.

Here are our top 5 delicious internet things from the past week (in no particular order):

The small stuff

Nikon’s Small World Microphotography competition features some jaw-dropping little suckers, including this blood-brain barrier in a live zebrafish embryo that scored first place.

Sexy graphs

There’s always room in my heart for a graph that makes you go “mmmmmmm”. Felice Frankel’s new book Visualizing Science shows how you can give data the wow-factor (for researchers, or graph nerds like myself)

Pumpkin Pi

If there’s a mathematical link to the 31/10, it’s in and around a pumpkin. Thanks to Neatorama for the share.

And fold and bend and flex

It could be aerobics, or it could be a happy clever flexagon. Have a hexaflexagon party with Vihart’s YouTube mathemusic.

Okay, sorry.

But this makes me giggle.

Now we’re just waiting for your Mars rover Halloween costumes to come rolling in for next week’s faves. Really, I like them already.


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