Saturday, June 11, 2016

Proof Positive

I’m a firm believer in science and its practitioners, specifically researchers hunched over their workbenches day after day in the dingy basement of some out-of-the-way building.

Without them, we would still be a rag-tag colony of hunter/gatherers living in trees.

“Hi, dear. What’s for dinner?”


“Not again!”

Thanks to scientific research, we have car alarms, automated telephone menus, mobile phone ringtones, pop-up ads, selfies, boom boxes, microwaved food, Twitter and Facebook.

Imagine life without them.

But sometimes researchers, in their never-ending quest to shine the bright light of knowledge on our dull countenances, do some weird stuff.

Consider this bit of breathless news that broke just this past week:

“New research from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom suggests that restaurants and bars that sell and serve wine in larger glasses cause patrons to drink more, even if the amount of alcohol doesn't vary.

“Over 16 weeks, researchers at the University of Bristol studied serving patterns at a dual bar and restaurant establishment called The Pint Shop in Cambridge. Over the course of the study, the space's owners alternated between three different glass sizes: the "standard" 300 ml, a larger 370 ml, and a smaller 250 ml.

“Not only did they find that people tended to buy more wine when the bar served alcohol in larger glasses, they also found that it was a significant amount more; patrons bought an average of 9.4 percent more wine when it was served in the 370 ml glass, as opposed to the standard 300 ml glass.”

And then this: “The researchers are continuing to study the effects to confirm their hypothesis.”

These guys are geniuses. Not because they came to the startling conclusion that people drink more when the glasses are larger.  But because they found a university to pick up their bar bill in the name of research. 


In a related development, a group of researchers asked people at bars to rate their own attractiveness. They found that the higher the blood alcohol content of people, the higher they rated themselves on attractiveness. Which I guess is why they put mirrors behind bars.

There is other notable research going on out there. According to the website Mental Floss, a researcher trained pigeons to tell the difference between good and bad paintings made by children. The pigeons were positively reinforced when they pecked at good paintings and after a while, they were able to determine which ones were good, even observing color and pattern cues in paintings they'd never seen before.  Practical application unknown.

Some other bon mots from Mental Floss:

 A study was conducted at the Babraham Institute to determine whether sheep were capable of recognizing the faces of other sheep. When the study concluded in 2001, the researchers had discovered that sheep could recognize the faces of 50 sheep about 80% of the time, and they remembered them for over two years.  Which is better than I could do.

A group of researchers did a study to determine whether the speed and flow of men's urination was affected by people being too near them. In order to do this, they left an observer with a periscope in a public restroom for extended periods of time. He found that the closer a man had to pee next to another man, the longer it took for him to start urinating. He also peed, on average, less if someone was standing next to him. I suspect the research was done at some random sports venue where guys are lined up shoulder to shoulder and 10 deep.

 At the University of Minnesota, scientists discovered that it is just as easy to swim in syrup as it is to swim in water. In order to conduct the experiment, they filled a 25 meter swimming pool with a liquid made of guar gum, a liquid that is twice as thick as water, and it turns out that you can swim in it just fine.  No Olympic records were harmed in the making of this conclusion.

Less we be accused of nerd bashing, scientists poke fun at themselves for quirky studies. In fact, there is something called the Ig Nobel awards, presented each year at Harvard University by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine.

In the past, honorees included two California scientists who conducted extensive research on why woodpeckers don't get headaches.

And another group studied why pregnant women don't tip over. Women, it appears, have slight differences in their lumbar vertebrae that helps compensate for their changing center of gravity. So women are different. Who knew?

Honors also went to researchers who investigated whether suicide rates are linked to the amount of country music played on the radio. My guess is yes.

And Swiss scientists conducted a study that confirmed an empty beer bottle makes a better weapon than a full beer bottle in a fight.

Also saluted was a study that determined that lap dancers get higher tips when they are ovulating; and a woman from MIT who invented an alarm clock that runs away and hides, repeatedly, thus ensuring that people do get out of bed, and thus theoretically adding many productive hours to the workday.

The awards aren’t always bestowed for strict scientific research.

The prize for mathematics was once awarded to the Southern Baptist Church of Alabama for their county-by-county estimate of how many Alabama citizens will go to hell if they don't repent.

This year’s prize in Economics went to the Bangkok Metropolitan Police for offering to pay policemen extra cash if the policemen refuse to take bribes.

A few years ago, the British government unveiled plans to allocate research funding according to how much "impact" the research has.

The plans immediately came under fire from academics, who say that curiosity-driven, speculative research has led to some of the most important breakthroughs in scientific history, including penicillin, relativity theory and the theory of evolution.

Not to mention runaway alarm clocks.

Robert Rector is a veteran of 50 years in print journalism. He has worked at the San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Valley News, Los Angeles Times and Pasadena Star-News. His columns can be found at Robert-Rector@Blogspot.Com. Follow him on Twitter at @robertrector1.

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