They trained chickens to play baseball, and then some

April 20th, 2014

Psychologist B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning work inspired the work of Marian Breland Bailey. Bailey’s work inspired this study:

Marian Breland Bailey: The Mouse Who Reinforced,”  John N. Marr, Arkansas Historical Quarterly. Vol. 61, No. 1 (Spring, 2002), pp. 59-79. Marr writes:

Marian and her first husband, Keller Breland, had become the most experienced and accomplished mammal, fish, reptile, and bird trainers in the world, and they did most of their work in Hot Springs, Arkansas. They were the first scientists to see that the methods used in that original pigeon project of World War II could be employed to train animals to do almost anything within the creature’s repertoire to work for and to entertain humans…

Other rooms contained chickens walking the “circus high wire” or pecking a button that caused a miniature baseball bat to hit a ball into the left field fence as the chicken ran the bases for a home run. Ducks played drums or pecked at the keys of a piano. Squirrels raised a flag up a pole to the sound of a bugle. Rabbits rode on the back of a miniature fire truck when the fire alarm rang or kissed a bunny doll until it “lit up.” Raccoons had to stuff a ball through a basket before a food light would blink. The baseball-playing chicken exhibit was also displayed in the window of a large department store in New York. The chicken’s performance was not in the least affected by the cheering of a large crowd on the sidewalk when she “hit” a home run; she would even trot back to home plate to try again when the ball was “caught” or hit foul (signified by the failure of a small light at first base to light up).

 (Thanks to investigator Mason Porter for bringing this to our attention.)

BONUS (not necessarily not related): Chicken, Chicken, Chicken

“This is quite possibly the worst paper I’ve read all year”

April 19th, 2014

This is quite possibly the worst paper I’ve read all year,” writes Lior Pachter in his blog, Bits of DNA, proceeding to perform a detailed, methodical autopsy. He’s talking about this paper, which has been the subject of many scare-inducing news reports (with scare-inducing headlines like this one: “Even Casual Marijuana Use Causes Brain Abnormalities“):

J.M. Gilman et al.Cannabis Use Is Quantitatively Associated with Nucleus Accumbens and Amygdala Abnormalities in Young Adult Recreational Users, Neurobiology of Disease, 34 (2014), 5529–5538.

Professor Pachter, after dissecting the study, ends his essay with a tidy thought:

…I believe that scientists should be sanctioned for making public statements that directly contradict the content of their papers, as appears to be the case here. There is precedent for this.

(Thanks to investigator Ivan Oransky for bringing this to our attention.)

Here are:

  • The official press release about the study.
  • breiterThe study’s authors, and the institutions with which they are affiliated (as listed in the study):  Jodi M. Gilman1,4,5, John K. Kuster1,2,*, Sang Lee1,6,*, Myung Joo Lee1,6,*, Byoung Woo Kim1,6, Nikos Makris3,5, Andre van der Kouwe4,5, Anne J. Blood1,2,4,5,†, and Hans C. Breiter [pictured here]1,2,4,6,†
  • Those institutions  (as listed in the study): 1 Laboratory of Neuroimaging and Genetics, Department of Psychiatry, 2 Mood and Motor Control Laboratory, 3 Center for Morphometric Analysis, Department of Psychiatry, and 4 Athinoula A. Martinos Center in Biomedical Imaging, Department of Radiology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Charlestown, Massachusetts 02129, 5 Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, and 6 Warren Wright Adolescent Center, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, Illinois 06011

Here, also as listed in the study, are the “author contributions” to the study:

  • J.M.G., M.J.L., B.K., N.M., A.J.v.d.K., A.B., and H.C.B. designed research; J.M.G., J.K.K., S.L., and A.J.v.d.K. performed research; M.J.L., B.K., A.B., and H.C.B. contributed unpublished reagents/analytic tools; J.M.G., J.K.K., S.L., M.J.L., N.M., A.B., and H.C.B. analyzed data; J.M.G., A.B., and H.C.B. wrote the paper.
  •  *J.K.K., S.L., and M.J.L. contributed equally to this work.
  •  †A.J.B. and H.C.B. contributed equally to this work.

BONUS: Description of a talk by Dr. Breiter1,2,4,6,† (the anchor editor of the cannabis study), with a modestly extensive biography of Dr. Breiter, highlighting a few of Dr. Breiter’s many accomplishments.


The tomatoic under-arm odour of J.C.M. Stewart

April 19th, 2014

J.C.M. Stewart conveys an unusual kind of information in this medical paper:

Tomatoes cause under-arm odour,” J.C.M. Stewart, Medical Hypotheses, vol. 82 (2014) pp. 518–521. (Thanks to Jean-François Sauvé for bringing this to our attention.) The author, in Downpatrick, Co Down, Northern Ireland, explains:

“I was more than usually aware of my AO [armpit odor] one hot summer seven years ago when colleagues became restless and routinely opened windows in my presence. Nothing was ever said of course but this happened so regularly that there was no doubt about it, I eventually realised: I was the centre of a perfect pong. This is embarrassing and totally unacceptable to anyone working in a professional capacity. Yet a scrupulously cleansing shower each morning did not eliminate the problem. It happened I did not use deodorants or anti antiperspirants so the AO was not artificially suppressed.”

Virtual hand shadow theatrics

April 18th, 2014

If you, like Raymond Crowe shown above, are a professional hand-shadow artist (viz. a shadowgrapher according to Wikpedia) then you might think that your job is one of the relatively few that is unlikely to be replicated by a computer any time soon. Think again. Work underway at the IMAGINE (Intuitive Modeling and Animation for Interactive Graphics & Narrative Environments) Laboratory, Grenoble, France, is attempting just that. Here, they announce an M.Sc. / Ph.D. internship opportunity :

“The goal of the internship will be to design and implement generative methods for automatically animating virtual hands and generating shadow plays driven by objective goals, such as reproducing a given shape or motion; or visualizing a given story.”

 BONUS Shadowgraph of an exploding balloon filled with hydrogen/air (is there a mystery face at around 11 seconds, or is it an illusion?)

The drop dropped in the Ig Nobel-winning pitch drop experiment

April 17th, 2014

Big little news from Queensland, as reported by Celeste Biever and Lisa Grossman for New Scientist magazine:

Longest experiment sees pitch drop after 84-year wait

The pitch has dropped – again. This time, the glimpse of a falling blob of tar, also called pitch, represents the first result for the world’s longest-running experiment…. Up-and-running since 1930, the experiment is based at the University of Queensland in Australia and seeks to capture blobs of pitch as they drip down, agonisingly slowly, from their parent bulk.

The Queensland experiment already features in the Guinness World Records and won an IgNobel prize in 2005. It was set up by physicist Thomas Parnell to illustrate that although pitch appears solid, shattering when hit with a hammer at room temperature, it is actually a very viscous liquid.

The eventual result follows several near misses, according to the University of Queensland. John Mainstone, who oversaw the experiment for more than 50 years until his death last August, missed observing the drops fall three times – by a day in 1977, by just five minutes in 1988 and, perhaps most annoying, in 2000, when the webcam that was recording it was hit by a 20-minute power outage….

The university issued an official announcement of the drop’s dropping. The experiment was begun by “the University of Queensland’s first physics professor, Thomas Parnell, in 1927.”

Three decades later, more or less, Professor John Mainstone took over from Professor Parnell. Professor Mainstone oversaw the experiment at the time the Ig Nobel Prize was awarded, and attended the ceremony at Harvard.  Alas, he did not live to see the ninth drop drop.

Professor Andrew White, youthful, now oversees the experiment.

BONUS: The live webcam view of the experiment, which now is hurtling at extremely low speed towards the day or night when the tenth drop will drop.