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Meaningful Brain Activity

By Mordechai Schmutter

I really feel for scientists. Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, and our fields are kind of similar. For example, I can’t just write a book that’s already been written. I have to write one that hasn’t been. Everyone’s very picky about this.

And the same goes for scientists. There are more scientists nowadays than ever before (it must be something in the water), but all the research has already been done. Yet you can’t just invent something that’s already been invented. You have to invent something new. And the same is with discoveries. You can’t discover America again. It’s too late. You have to discover something else. But what? It’s not like there’s a list somewhere.

So it’s really tough. Luckily, there’s an annual awards ceremony called the Ig Nobels, which recognizes people who find new things to do research on. I write about it every year because, as I said, it’s not easy to keep finding new things to write about.

How do these scientists go about choosing the fields they eventually get into? Sometimes it happens by accident. Take last year’s prize for neuroscience, which was awarded to Craig Bennett, Abigail Baird, Michael Miller, and George Wolford, for “demonstrating that brain researchers, by using complicated instruments and simple statistics, can see meaningful brain activity anywhere—even in a dead salmon.”

This is great. I teach high-school English, and I don’t always see meaningful brain activity in my class. If I brought in a dead salmon, I’m pretty sure it would raise the curve.

This research started years ago, when two of the researchers started trying to see who could put the most-obscure objects into an MRI scanner. One of them stuck in a Cornish game hen, and the other person put in a pumpkin. So then the first person came back with a dead salmon. To make the test more accurate, they “showed the salmon pictures of humans in social settings and asked it to determine what emotions the individuals in the photos must have been experiencing.”

They all thought it was very funny until the scans came back, and they saw that there was actual brain activity in the salmon the entire time. That was embarrassing. Then they saw that the pumpkin had some brain activity too. And in the meantime, their actual patient had gotten up, earned a medical degree, and scanned his own brain.

So this discovery won them an award, though the prize committee asked them to explain how their research can actually benefit society. It turns out that the purpose, which they came up with on the spot, was a warning to neuroscientists to be careful not to confuse chance signals in the MRI for actual brain activity. And also to always wash out the machine before use.

The prize for physics went to Joseph Keller, Raymond Goldstein, Patrick Warren, and Robin Ball, for “calculating the balance of forces that shape and move the hair in a ponytail.”

I think it’s a good idea to conduct a study on ponytails. Ponytails are weird and mysterious things. I’ve never been able to make one. Not on my daughter, not on any of my boys. My wife’s like, “What’s the big deal? You just go like this, you double it over, and poof!” I can’t do it. I put the rubber band on and watch it slowly slide down until it’s holding together maybe an inch of hair somewhere in the vicinity of his waist.

But the biggest mystery, these researchers noted, was this: You see a person running, and the head is going up and down, up and down. And which way is the ponytail going? Side to side!

So they’re studying ponytails: ponytails in the wild, ponytails on ponies; they’re clipping them off people’s heads (with consent, I’m assuming); and I saw a picture of one of the researchers standing in front of an entire wall of ponytails hanging like meat at a butcher. Maybe they were going to upsherins and walking off with the ponytails.

Since my son’s upsherin, we’re done with ponytails for a while. We had everyone in the family try their hand at barbering, and now he looks like he had his haircut by committee. We also had him lick honey off an aleph beis chart the size of an oak tag, so now everything we own has hair stuck to it. So my point is that taking his hair would not have given them a fair representative of how hair bounces and falls.

The prize for psychology, meanwhile, went to Anita Eerland, Rolf Zwaan, and Tulio Guadalupe of the Netherlands, for their study titled “Leaning to the left makes the Eiffel Tower seem smaller.”

Don’t ask me how they came up with that one. I think this is something they noticed Pesach time, after four cups of wine.

“Hey, did you notice that leaning left makes the Eiffel Tower look smaller?”

“Yeah! Also, eating marror makes it look blurry.”

Okay, I’ll wait a minute while you go look at a picture of the Eiffel Tower and lean left. I don’t know if the difference is as noticeable with pictures, unless they’re actual size.

Basically, they found that people estimated the height of the tower incorrectly while they were leaning left. The reason for this, they found, is that we have a mental number line in our heads, and because of all those years of sitting in school and looking at rulers, we always picture smaller numbers on the left and bigger numbers on the right, so when we lean left, we think smaller.

“No, I think I only had three cups.”

Basically, it’s a neat trick that has no practical applications, unless you’re designing buildings on a hill.

They also found that leaning left makes your ponytail go left.

The prize for fluid dynamics went to Rouslan Krechetnikov and Hans Mayer for studying the dynamics of what happens when a person walks while carrying a cup of coffee.

Basically, we drink coffee to help us keep moving, so it’s not exactly like we want to stop moving once we’re holding our coffee. But if we keep moving, it spills. So they conducted a study to figure out the best approach to making it not spill. Is it better to walk slower? To walk faster? To run quickly, and then suddenly change direction?

So they did a whole study where they spent years walking back and forth with coffee, at various speeds and heights, and spilling it on themselves. They did not sleep until they came up with some answers. As well as for several months afterward.

“I don’t get it! The fluid sloshes back and forth when I walk. But my ponytail moves side to side. It doesn’t make sense! Why is there hair in my coffee?”

I know what happens when I walk from the kitchen to the dining room to serve soup on Shabbos. The soup sloshes forward and backward, forward and backward, a little more with each step that I take. And then I stop walking, and the whole thing pitches forward. I have to stop after each bowl of soup and clean the floor. So I find that it helps to tilt the bowl forward and then try to match the speed of gravity. Alternatively, we can give everyone very little soup.

This was one of the researchers’ ideas. They said that you should try to leave an empty space at the top of the coffee mug that is about one-eighth the diameter of the opening. Great idea, right? So I measured my Shabbos china, which is about 8½ inches across, and I calculated that I have to leave a little more than an inch off the top of the bowl. Unfortunately, the bowl is an inch deep. Mathematically, this means that even if I walked around with an empty bowl, I’d still have a pretty good chance of spilling soup on myself.

They also concluded that the best thing to do is walk slowly and carefully, which most of us pretty much figured. But this might be news to a lot of coffee drinkers whose philosophy has been to try to walk as fast as they can, in the hopes that they get to their destination before the sloshing coffee reaches critical height and leashes a tidal wave all over their desks.

But at no point during this study did any of them think about maybe just using a lid.

Wow. Even a dead salmon could have told them that. v

Mordechai Schmutter is a weekly humor columnist for Hamodia and is the author of four books, published by Israel Book Shop. He also does freelance writing for hire. You can send any questions, comments, or ideas to

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Posted by on October 31, 2013. Filed under In This Week's Edition. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.