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Why research that?!

One study tells us that cows with names give more milk than those without names, while another shows us the best way mathematically to pour a second cup of coffee. With so many odd, quirky studies, we wonder how many are relevant. Researchers have their say.

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Friday

Dee Dee is a lot like us. In the American cartoon, Dexter's Laboratory, she uses her brother's lab as her playground. She hopscotches around his inventions with blithe disregard, inciting her brother Dexter to tell her off: "You're stupid. Get out of my laboratory!"

"Stupid" is his way of telling her that she just doesn't get it - get his genius designs and his scientific findings. So again, why is Dee Dee like us? Well, because we react like her when we come across studies in which we don't instantly see merit. Because like Dee Dee, who pulls the plug on inventions she thinks aren't important enough, we discredit before we credit.

We are a lot like her.

We give the cold shoulder to studies that we define as bizarre and stultifying. We laugh. We ridicule. We dismiss. We pass facetious remarks. In other words, we put these studies in a pillory, exposing our own ignorance.

Like I did.

That study on why cows are more likely to lie down the longer they stand had me in stitches. And the one about the best mathematical way to pour a second cup of coffee from a pot made me think researchers have too much time. Several others seemed so odd, so quirky that they made me articulate my exasperation in one pressing question, "Why bother?"

However, some people credit before they discredit. Instead of abasing, they honour these researchers with an award, notably the Ig Nobel Prize. The winners are commended by Nobel Laureates at Harvard University's Sanders Theatre every October, and then invited to give lectures at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The award ceremony is organised by the US-based organisation Improbable Research. It has a science humour magazine titled Annals of Improbable Research, a website and a TV series. Its editor and co-founder, Marc Abrahams, writes about odd, quirky research studies which, according to the organisation's slogan, ‘first make people laugh, and then make them think'.

"If the research is intriguing enough," says Abrahams, "it takes only an instant to get people to think. We get about 7,000 or so new submissions every year. Almost all are odd in some way. Whatever doesn't get chosen goes back into the pool, and is considered again the next year."

The organisation's goal is to spur people's curiosity and to raise the question: how do you decide what is important and what isn't, and what is real and what isn't in science and everywhere else?

In a way, it seemed only logical to dig its archives for recipients of the Ig Nobel Prize and ask them to plug the lacunae in our - limited - understanding to convince us that we owe them an apology for the roughshod treatment we have been meting out. Four researchersI contacted, explain.

 

Cows who have names give more milk than cows that are nameless

Researchers: Drs Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson
Recognition: Ig Nobel Prize in Veterinary Medicine (2009)

Dr Douglas says she would like to dedicate the Ig Nobel Prize to her family - and to Purslane, Wendy and Tina, the nicest cows she has ever known. It is an expected response.

The researcher and lecturer at Newcastle University, UK, had to observe cows' behaviour in the milking parlour and take measurements such as milk yield. She says she has had a black eye and broken ribs from cows distressed at being in the parlour and kicking out. She has visited hundreds of farmers, farms and their herds of cows, and says it was obvious that there were differences in how the farmers behaved around their cows and how the cows behaved around humans, leading to the "cows with names" finding.

Dr Douglas says, "Many studies with other animals found that reducing fear could improve fertility, growth rate and immune response among other benefits. Our research [over three years] has given credibility to what some may have viewed as sentimentality. I was surprised and delighted that there were so many farmers who did call their cows by name and this had a real and statistically significant difference in milk yield."

In fact, when Dr Douglas visited the cows from the practical trialtwo years later, she says she was impressed. "They obviously remembered me. I was flattered and delighted that we were still friends."

The study* she conducted along with UK-based Peter Rowlinson, degree programme director for animal science, was designed to see if these differences in how cows feel around humans would actually translate into genuine measurable differences in welfare, behaviour and milk production.

Their survey of commercial UK dairy farmers found a statistically significant 258-litre increase in milk yield where farmers reported that they called their cows by name. Drs Douglas and Rowlinson attributed their findings - namely increased milk yield - to the reduced fear of humans when cows come into the milking parlour.

The reasoning is found in several controlled scientific studies that talk about the evidence of the impact of cortisol on milk production, says Dr Douglas. "A less stressed or less fearful cow isn't producing cortisol that interferes with milk production; breast-feeding women can tell you about how stress and worry impacts on milk production."

The short-term benefits according to her include positive press coverage that showed majority of UK dairy farmers as caring individuals who respect and love their herd. "The long-term benefits highlight that improved quality of interaction with cattle can improve management and potentially milk yield. I hope to get funding to continue this trial work using dairy cows to inform us on whether they do or do not need to be out at grass," she says.

*The study, published in 2009, titled Exploring stock managers perceptions of the human-animal relationship on dairy farms and an association with milk production is available at Anthrozoos, Berg Publishing (DOI: 10.2752/089279307X224764)

 

Fleas that live on a dog can jump higher than fleas that live on a cat

Researchers: Marie-Christine Cadiergues, Christel Joubert and Michel Franc
Recognition: Ig Nobel Prize in Biology (2008)

The most challenging part of the research was trying not to let too many fleas escape. Yes, fleas. Those wingless, bloodsucking, parasitic insects that can jump several times higher than their own height. Of course, the study* on the jump performances of fleas, done between 1998 and 2000, had a larger purpose, even though it appeared "funny and maybe crazy and useless to some".

At the time, friends and colleagues were most impressed by the researchers' dedication to fleas. At least to a certain extent, says Dr Cadiergues, who is the dermatology teaching module leader at the National Veterinary School of Toulouse, France. The study, however, rose to fame after it received the Ig Nobel Prize. The veterinary community reacted enthusiastically, telling them this was a first for veterinary dermatology. A few unfortunately didn't get the point, asking sarcastic questions like, "Do they make gold medals small enough to hang around their [fleas'] necks?"

The subject of the study was bound to invite all kinds of responses, especially light-hearted ones. Dr Cadiergues recalls an incident in 2000 when she found a poster on her office door. "It was the same year of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. The large poster was emblazoned with ‘2000: Toulouse Olympic Games' and subtitled with ‘Who will win the gold medal?'. It also had nice funny cartoons that illustrated the competition between fleas with me in the centre as a referee."

But Cadiergues, Joubert and Franc were refereeing for something else: a better knowledge of flea biology to help vets, pet owners and pets.

Dr Cadiergues says, "It was part of a larger work on the biology of fleas. More specifically, this work, which was my PhD research, intended to better characterise and compare the two most common flea species in pets - the cat flea [Ctenocephalides felis] also observed in dogs, and the dog flea [Ctenocephalides canis]. The latter is only encountered in dogs and is much rarer nowadays. The idea was to compare them on various aspects like survival; reproduction; susceptibility to insecticides; and physical abilities such as jumping."

Since the published study, their work has generated interest. Dr Cadiergues says, "Many became interested in fleas and contacted me. I think this is an opportunity for the public to realise that research can be fun and that there is still some room for descriptive and basic research, which can be done without using powerful tools such as molecular biology or DNA sequencing. Sometimes, I simply wonder if people remember - or know - which animal the DNA or the proteins they study belong to."

*The study, published in 2000, titled ‘A comparison of jump performances of the dog flea, Ctenocephalides canis (Curtis, 1826) and the cat flea, Ctenocephalides felis felis (Bouché, 1835)' is available at www.sciencedirect.com, a scientific database of peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters.

 

Modifying the sound of a potato crisp to make the person chewing it believe it to be crisper and fresher than it really is

Researchers: Dr Massimiliano Zampini and Professor Charles Spence
Recognition: Ig Nobel Prize in Nutrition (2008)

Given the nature of the research, Professor Spence, head of the Cross-modal Research Laboratory at the department of experimental psychology at Oxford University in the UK, found little difficulty in finding volunteers for the study. "The Oxford undergraduates were delighted to take part when they found out they would get to eat a whole packet of Pringles," he says.

Each of the 20 volunteers sat in a soundproofed booth, wearing headphones and facing a microphone. The researchers fed them 180 crisps each. As the volunteers bit into each crisp, they were asked to rate the crispiness or freshness. Simultaneously, the microphone picked up the biting/crunching sound, manipulated it, and played it back over headphones in real time. The volunteers reported that the sounds from the headphones appeared to emanate from their mouth during the biting action. The result? Crisps could be made to taste up to 15 per cent crispier and fresher by boosting the high-frequency crunching/ biting sounds during playback.

Now you might ask what has eating crisps got to do with research? At the laboratory, professor Spence's research involves trying to figure out how the senses - smell, taste, sight, hearing and touch - talk to each other in the brain. His focus is on the perception of food in the way it looks, tastes and even sounds. The study*, carried out in collaboration with Dr Zampini from the University of Trento, Italy, was funded by multinational corporation Unilever for its research project on food and the senses.

Professor Spence says, "Ironically, it [Unilever] doesn't make Pringles".

It wasn't his first attempt to advise companies on aspects of multi-sensory design. In the last decade, he has been a consultant to corporations from Procter & Gamble to Starbucks and McDonald's. His research even got the likes of chefs such as Heston Blumenthal - and his three Michelin star-rated The Fat Duck Restaurant - interested.

The ‘sonic crisp experiment' as he terms it, often sounds silly. "But once people understand the science and see the implications of the findings in their own lives, they become more and more interested; what started out as a simple food science experiment is now being written about by psychologists, philosophers and chefs. In the short term, we are working with chefs to translate our findings into interesting, fun and engaging dining experiences."

Professor Spence's main aim is to use the growing understanding of the mind of the consumer to design products that more effectively stimulate the senses.

He says, "We are working on using colour in food to give the illusion of sweetness or saltiness. Our hope is that by simply using the right colour, food companies will be able to reduce the sugar content of certain foods by more than 10 per cent. Further, our research may help make food pleasurable, tasty and interesting to the elderly who lose their senses of smell and taste as they age."

*The study, published in 2004, titled ‘The role of auditory cues in modulating the perceived crispness and staleness of potato chips' is available from the Journal of Sensory Studies.

The number of photographs you must take to (almost) ensure that nobody in a group photo will have their eyes closed

Researchers: Dr Piers Barnes and Nic Svenson
Recognition: Ig Nobel Prize in Mathematics (2006)

"Rest assured, our organisation's money wasn't wasted in the course of our research. We did it all in our lunch hours," says Svenson, a communications officer at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia's national science agency and one of the largest, most diverse research agencies in the world.

Svenson, like most people, is aware that people blink in photos with one person's blinking potentially ruining a group photo. She asked Dr Barnes, a physicist and colleague, to calculate how many photos she should take to get one where nobody is blinking.

But first, she had to understand why people blink. Blinking, a random event, is attributed to several factors including nervousness, dry air, stress, fatigue, wind, contact lenses and even fancying the photographer, according to Svenson and Dr Barnes. Their task was to come up with a formula based on this and sort out probabilities. They found that a person being photographed blinks 10 times on average per minute. The average blink lasts about 250 milliseconds; and a camera shutter stays open for about eight milliseconds.

To help Svenson figure out the number of photos she needs to take to expect at least one where no one is blinking, Dr Barnes came up with a formula. He based it on the expected number of blinks; the time during which the photo could be spoilt; and the expected time between blinks, which is longer than the time in which a photo can be spoilt. He told her to follow a rule of thumb: for groups of less than 20, you divide the number of people by three if there's good light or a decent flash, and two if the light's bad.

So, during lunchtimes they got a few colleagues and tried out their formula. The number of people blinking seemed to vary more or less as they predicted.

Svenson used Dr Barnes' formula which resulted in 99 per cent certainty of a good shot.

The result? Their findings bagged an award.

In the audio transcript released in their organisation, Dr Barnes said: "It won't help them [photographers] solve it [the blinking problem], but it will hopefully give them a chance of being forewarned…" In a media release he said, "We are proud to have made a gross simplification of complex physiological and psychological factors backed up with no empirical data."

*The study, published in 2006, titled Blink-Free Photos, Guaranteed is available from Velocity, an Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) publication

 

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