Awarding the Wrong People


Way Out Research on Obscure Topics

The business of scepticism is to be dangerous.
Scepticism challenges established institutions.
If we teach everybody, including, say, high school students, habits of sceptical thought,
they will probably not restrict their skepticism to UFOs, aspirin commercials, and 35,000-year-old channelees.
Maybe they'll start asking awkward questions about economic, or social, or political, or religious institutions.
Perhaps they'll challenge the opinions of those in power.  Then where would we be?

- Carl Sagan

The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem
those who think alike than those who think differently.

- Nietzsche

Nobel, Schnobel, Give Me an Ig!

Science's top awards are going to the wrong people?

by James Meek

One swallow doth not a summer make.  But two swallows might attract a research grant and three are enough to work up a paper in a marginal journal of climatology, with a title like "Statistical Correlation of the Incidence of Hirundo Rustica with the Onset of Warm Weather in a Temperate Region".

If you want to tell me that paper has actually been written, don't bother.  I'm sure it has.  In the past few weeks, there have been papers published about how women can't throw as well as men (based on 25 people chucking balls into buckets), about a slime that can find its way through a maze and how monkeys can become cannabis addicts (you have to turn them into cocaine addicts first).

The habits of far-out research - suspiciously small test groups, the combination of elements from two unrelated fields (slime and mazes), the questionable use of animals, the triumphant proof of something we knew already - prompt the question: How did they get the money to do that?  Haven't they got better things to do?  And should the scientists be nominated for an Ig Nobel Prize?

The 2000 Ig Nobels were awarded at Harvard this month, as they have been annually since 1991, in parallel with the real Nobels.  The criteria are simple: they are for "achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced".

Chairman of the Ig Nobel board of governors, Marc Abrahams, cites the 1996 biology winners as a classic example of "cannot be repeated": Anders Barheim and Hogne Sandvik found that leeches have their appetite stimulated by sour cream, are made drunk by beer and are often killed by garlic.

Ig Nobel winners sometimes have to wait years for their achievements to be recognised: The prize for public health to Jonathan Wyatt, Gordon McNaughton and William Tullet came 7 years after their groundbreaking paper, "The Collapse of Toilets in Glasgow", was published in the Scottish Medical Journal. The abstract of their research was a model - evidence of a crisis; analysis of the cause and a chilling conclusion: "Three cases are presented of porcelain lavatory pans collapsing under body weight, producing wounds which required hospital treatment.  Excessive age of the toilets was implicated as a causative factor.  As many toilets get older, episodes of collapse may become more common, resulting in injuries."

The 2000 psychology prize went to two US researchers for "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognising One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments".  Richard Wasserug took the biology award for "On the Comparative Palatability of some Dry-Season Tadpoles from Costa Rica".  He ate them and reported they were neither dry nor seasoned.

Sir Michael Berry, of Bristol University, was honored for physics along with Andre Geim of the Netherlands for making a frog and a sumo wrestler levitate inside a powerful magnet.  The chemistry prize went to an Italian-Californian team for discovering that, bio-chemically, romantic love may be indistinguishable from a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder.  ("Alteration of the Platelet Serotonin Transporter in Romantic Love" - ah, amore.)

The British Medical Journal published the paper ("Magnetic Resonance Imaging of Male and Female Genitals During Coitus and Female Sexual Arousal"), which won the prize for medicine, and proudly announced it in its latest issue.

Praise also to Chris Niswander of Tucson, Arizona, who scooped the computer science award with his software, PawSense, which detects when a cat is walking across your computer keyboard.  ("PawSense analyses keypress timings to distinguish cat typing from human typing.  PawSense normally recognises a cat on the keyboard within one or two pawsteps.")

The Ig also awards peace and literacy prizes.  Britain scooped gold for peace, with the Royal Navy's plan to replace live shell firing practice with sailors shouting "Bang!"  Jasmuheen, also known as Ellen Greve of Australia, won for her books on Breatharianism, which explain why we don't ever need to eat food.

"The Ig honours the great muddle in which most of us exist much of the time," says Marc Abrahams.  "Life is confusing.  Good and bad get all mixed up.  Most people go through life without ever being awarded a great, puffy prize to acknowledge that, yes, they have done something.  That's why we award Ig Nobel Prizes.  If you win one, it signifies to one and all that you have done something.  What that thing is may be hard to explain." - Guardian

Source: The Age, Education Age section Wednesday 18 October 2000

I might point out that two of the research papers (one in the first article and one in the second - slime that can find its way through a maze and London taxi drivers have bigger-than-average brains) that are mentioned as way out and obscure, I had read about and been so impressed with, I had already included them in this website.

You just can't displease all the people all the time.

Ig Nobel Awards Honor "Dead" Man, Murphy's Law

by Maggie Fox

Washington - An Indian who spent 18 years trying to prove he was alive, researchers who showed London taxi drivers have bigger-than-average brains and the inventor of Murphy's Law won "Ig Nobel" prizes on Thursday.  The spoofs of the Nobel prizes were also awarded to researchers who found politicians to have simple personalities, a Japanese inventor who studied a statue that seems to be repulsive to birds and an economist who chronicles annoying behaviour.  The Ig Nobels - a play on the word ignoble - are given annually by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research and several groups at Harvard and Radcliffe universities to "honour achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced."

"We try to make people laugh, but we also want people to think," said Annals editor Marc Abrahams, who puts together the awards - presented in Boston - every year.  This year's "peace prize" goes to Lal Bihari of Uttar Pradesh in India, "for a triple accomplishment: first, for leading an active life even though he has been declared legally dead; second, for waging a lively posthumous campaign against bureaucratic inertia and greedy relatives; and third, for creating the Association of Dead People," the Ig Nobel committee said in a statement.

Bihari, who lives in Azamgarh, 130 miles southeast of Lucknow, was listed as deceased in 1976.  He eventually found thousands of other Indians in the same plight - apparently a scam in which officials are bribed to declare landowners dead so their property can be "inherited."  Abrahams said the Indian government at first refused to give a dead man a passport to travel to the Ig Nobel ceremony, but finally agreed last month to issue Bihari with travel documents.  But it was too late for Bihari to get a US visa.  "The Indian government, which didn't recognise his life, gave him a passport," Abrahams said.  "But the American government, the paragon of efficiency and helpfulness, won't give him a visa.  You would expect a man who comes back from the dead would get a little extra help."

The engineering prize went to now-deceased Air Force Captain Edward Murphy, Air Force doctor John Paul Stapp, and George Nichols, who in 1949 came up with Murphy's Law - "If anything can go wrong, it will."  The medicine prize went to a team at University College London for a study showing the brains of London taxi drivers are more highly developed than those of their fellow citizens.  Their report, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in April 2000, showed that cabbies have an especially large hippocampus, associated with spatial memory.  London cabbies must memorise a map of the city and pass a grueling test on their navigational abilities.

A team at the University of Rome and Stanford University in California won the psychology prize for their report, published in the deadly serious science journal Nature in 1997, showing that voters judge politicians on two personality characteristics, as compared to five determinants of personality in most social interactions.  The chemistry prize went to Yukio Hirose of Kanazawa University in Japan for his study of a bronze statue that fails to attract pigeons.  John Trinkaus of the Zicklin School of Business in New York City was given the literature prize for more than 80 reports about oddities such as what percentage of automobile drivers fail to completely stop at one particular stop-sign and what percentage of shoppers exceed the number of items permitted in a supermarket's express checkout lane.

Maggie Fox is the health and science correspondent for Reuters

Source: Friday 3 October 2003

How to Prove It

Proof by example: The author gives only the case n = 2 and suggests that it contains most of the ideas of the general proof.

Proof by intimidation - "Trivial."

Proof by vigorous handwaving - Works well in a classroom or seminar setting.

Proof by cumbersome notation - Best done with access to at least four alphabets and special symbols.

Proof by exhaustion - An issue or two of a journal devoted to your proof is useful.

Proof by omission - "The reader may easily supply the details"  "The other 253 cases are analogous"  "..."

Proof by obfuscation - A long plotless sequence of true and/or meaningless syntactically related statements.

Proof by wishful citation - The author cites the negation, converse, or generalisation of a theorem from the literature to support his claims.

Proof by funding - How could three different government agencies be wrong?

Proof by eminent authority - "I saw Karp in the elevator and he said it was probably NP-complete."

Proof by personal communication - "Eight-dimensional coloured cycle stripping is NP-complete [Karp, personal communication]."

Proof by reduction to the wrong problem - "To see that infinite-dimensional coloured cycle stripping is decidable, we reduce it to the halting problem."

Proof by reference to inaccessible literature - The author cites a simple corollary of a theorem to be found in a privately circulated memoir of the Slovenian Philological Society, 1883.

Proof by importance - A large body of useful consequences all follow from the proposition in question.

Proof by accumulated evidence - Long and diligent search has not revealed a counterexample.

Proof by cosmology - The negation of the proposition is unimaginable or meaningless.  Popular for proofs of the existence of God.

Proof by mutual reference - In reference A, Theorem 5 is said to follow from Theorem 3 in reference B, which is shown to follow from Corollary 6.2 in reference C, which is an easy consequence of Theorem 5 in reference A.

Proof by metaproof - A method is given to construct the desired proof.  The correctness of the method is proved by any of these techniques.

Proof by picture - A more convincing form of proof by example. Combines well with proof by omission.

Proof by vehement assertion - It is useful to have some kind of authority relation to the audience.

Proof by ghost reference - Nothing even remotely resembling the cited theorem appears in the reference given.

Proof by forward reference - Reference is usually to a forthcoming paper of the author, which is often not as forthcoming as at first.

Proof by semantic shift - Some of the standard but inconvenient definitions are changed for the statement of the result.

Proof by appeal to intuition - Cloud-shaped drawings frequently help here.

$200,000 Act of Kindness for Scientists

by Marilyn Elias

Four US scientists collected $200,000 Tuesday, the top monetary prize in psychology, for pioneering research on how to cultivate and amplify positive human qualities.

The first-place winner, University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt, received $100,000 for his studies showing that witnessing acts of kindness, loyalty, and heroism spurs a distinctive physical reaction in observers, and also the desire to do positive deeds.

The American Psychological Association presented the annual awards, funded by the Templeton Foundation in Philadelphia.

The goal is to encourage original research in the burgeoning "positive psychology" movement.  Psychology traditionally has been problem-focused, but the new movement stresses building human strengths and talents.

Other winners of the John Marks Templeton Positive Psychology Prize are:

bulletLaura King of Southern Methodist University (second place, $50,000), for her work on how daily goals can can positively affect thoughts, mood, behaviour and well-being.
bulletMichael McCullough of Southern Methodist University (third place, $30,000), for research on how forgiveness, gratitude and religion/spirituality can improve health and promote happiness.
bulletGustavo Carlo of the University of Nebraska - Lincoln (fourth place, $20,000), for studies on how individual parental and cultural influences can foster social and moral behaviour in kids.

Haidt's studies have found that people report "a warm, open, glowing feeling in the chest" when they see another person go "above and beyond."  This can be anything from small gestures of kindness - helping a blind person across the street - to major sacrifices, such as organ donation.  "And it motivates them to help others, too," he says.

Haidt doesn't claim to have discovered the unusual reaction to inspiring human "examples" it was even mentioned by Thomas Jefferson in 1771.  "Poets, Oprah Winfrey, the Chicken Soup for the Soul (book series) folks know about it," Haidt says, "but it's never been looked at scientifically before."

His award allows $30,000 for personal use, requiring the other $70,000 to be earmarked for continuing research.

Haidt says he'll try to discover conditions that maximise this response he calls "elevation," find the age at which children begin to feel it, and develop effective programs (to combat bullying, for example) that capitalise on this concept.

"We know about cynicism and disgust in response to negative behaviour," Haidt says.  "It's these positive reactions we need to learn a lot more about."

Source: USA Today Wednesday 30 May 2001

I'm glad to see that the study of positive behaviour is encouraged, however, I'll have to say that these awards seemed quite sizable considering the fact that most of what was studied could be deduced with little more than a bit of common sense and produced results more valuable to advertising agencies than to scientists.  Why do some "obscure topics" get a cash award and others get an Ig?

But then again, consider the following:

Failing the Physics Exam

The following concerns a question in a physics degree exam at the University of Copenhagen.

Describe how to determine the height of a skyscraper with a barometer.

One student replied:

You tie a long piece of string to the neck of the barometer, then lower the barometer from the roof of the skyscraper to the ground.  The length of the string plus the length of the barometer will equal the height of the building.

This highly original answer so incensed the examiner that the student was failed immediately.  The student appealed on the grounds that his answer was undisputedly correct, and the university appointed an independent arbiter to decide the case.  The arbiter judged that the answer was indeed correct, but did not display any noticeable knowledge of physics.  To resolve the problem it was decided to call the student in and allow him six minutes in which to provide a verbal answer which showed at least a minimal familiarity with the basic principles of physics.

For 5 minutes the student sat in silence, forehead creased in thought.  The arbiter reminded him that time was running out, to which the student replied that he had several extremely relevant answers, but couldn't make up his mind which to use.  On being advised to hurry up the student replied as follows:

First, you could take the barometer up to the roof of the skyscraper, drop it over the edge, and measure the time it takes to reach the ground.  The height of the building can then be worked out from the formula H = 0.5g x t2.  But bad luck on the barometer.

Or if the sun is shining you could measure the height of the barometer, then set it on end and measure the length of its shadow, and thereafter it is a simple matter of proportional arithmetic to work out the height of the skyscraper.

But if you wanted to be highly scientific about it, you could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and swing it like a pendulum, first at ground level and then on the roof of the skyscraper.  The height is worked out by the difference in the gravitational restoring force T = 2p times the square root of (1/g).

Or if the skyscraper has an outside emergency staircase, it would be easier to walk up it and mark off the height of the skyscraper in barometer lengths, then add them up.

If you merely wanted to be boring and orthodox about it, of course, you could use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground, and convert the difference in millibars into feet to give the height of the building.

But since we are constantly being exhorted to exercise independence of mind and apply scientific methods, undoubtedly the best way would be to knock on the janitor's door and say to him, "If you would like a nice new barometer, I will give you this one if you tell me the height of this skyscraper."

The student was Neils Bohr, the only Dane to win the Nobel Prize for Physics.

Source: Funny Times September 2000 (They gave special thanks to John Volkanski for sending in this story.)

Every Math Student's Fantasy...

The Legend: A young college student was working hard in an upper-level math course, for fear that he would be unable to pass.  On the night before the final, he studied so long that he overslept the morning of the test.  When he ran into the classroom several minutes late, he found 3 equations written on the blackboard.  The first 2 went rather easily, but the 3rd seemed impossible.  He worked frantically on it until - just 10 minutes short of the deadline - he found a method that worked; he finished the problems just as time was called.  The student turned in his test paper and left.  That evening he received a phone call from his professor.  "Do you realise what you did on the test today?" he shouted at the student.

"Oh, no," thought the student.  I must not have gotten the problems right after all.

"You were only supposed to do the first two problems," the professor explained.  "That last one was an example of an equation that mathematicians since Einstein have been trying to solve without success.  I discussed it with the class before starting the test.  And you just solved it!"

Origins: This legend combines one of the ultimate academic wish-fulfillment fantasies - a student not only proves himself the smartest one in his class, but also bests his professor and every other scholar in his field of study - with a "positive thinking" motif which turns up in other urban legends: when people are free to pursue goals unfettered by presumed limitations on what they can accomplish, they just may manage some extraordinary feats through the combined application of native talent and hard work.  And this particular version is all the more interesting for being completely true!

One day In 1939, George Bernard Dantzig, a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley, arrived late for a graduate-level statistics class and found 2 problems written on the board.  Not knowing they were examples of "unsolvable" statistics problems, he mistook them for part of a homework assignment, jotted them down, and solved them.  (The equations Dantzig tackled are perhaps more accurately described not as unsolvable problems, but as unproved statistical theorems for which he worked out proofs.)  Six weeks later, Dantzig's statistic professor notified him that he had prepared one of his two "homework" proofs for publication, and Dantzig was given co-author credit on another paper several years later when another mathematician independently worked out the same solution to the 2nd problem.

George Dantzig recounted his feat in a 1986 interview for the College Mathematics Journal:

It happened because during my first year at Berkeley I arrived late one day at one of [Jerzy] Neyman's classes.  On the blackboard there were two problems that I assumed had been assigned for homework.  I copied them down.  A few days later I apologised to Neyman for taking so long to do the homework - the problems seemed to be a little harder than usual.  I asked him if he still wanted it.  He told me to throw it on his desk.  I did so reluctantly because his desk was covered with such a heap of papers that I feared my homework would be lost there forever.  About 6 weeks later, one Sunday about 8am, [my wife] Anne and I were awakened by someone banging on our front door.  It was Neyman.  He rushed in with papers in hand, all excited: "I've just written an introduction to one of your papers.  Read it so I can send it out right away for publication."  For a minute I had no idea what he was talking about.  To make a long story short, the problems on the blackboard that I had solved thinking they were homework were in fact 2 famous unsolved problems in statistics.  That was the first inkling I had that there was anything special about them.

A year later, when I began to worry about a thesis topic, Neyman just shrugged and told me to wrap the 2 problems in a binder and he would accept them as my thesis.

The second of the two problems, however, was not published until after World War II.  It happened this way.

Around 1950 I received a letter from Abraham Wald enclosing the final galley proofs of a paper of his about to go to press in the Annals of Mathematical Statistics.  Someone had just pointed out to him that the main result in his paper was the same as the second "homework" problem solved in my thesis.  I wrote back suggesting we publish jointly.  He simply inserted my name as coauthor into the galley proof. 

Dr Dantzig also explained how his story passed into the realm of urban legendry:

The other day, as I was taking an early morning walk, I was hailed by Don Knuth as he rode by on his bicycle.  He is a colleague at Stanford.  He stopped and said, "Hey, George — I was visiting in Indiana recently and heard a sermon about you in church.  Do you know that you are an influence on Christians of middle America?"  I looked at him, amazed.  "After the sermon," he went on, "the minister came over and asked me if I knew a George Dantzig at Stanford, because that was the name of the person his sermon was about."

The origin of that minister's sermon can be traced to another Lutheran minister, the Reverend Schuler [sic] of the Crystal Cathedral in Los Angeles.  He told me his ideas about thinking positively, and I told him my story about the homework problems and my thesis.  A few months later I received a letter from him asking permission to include my story in a book he was writing on the power of positive thinking.  Schuler's published version was a bit garbled and exaggerated but essentially correct.  The moral of his sermon was this: If I had known that the problem were not homework but were in fact 2 famous unsolved problems in statistics, I probably would not have thought positively, would have become discouraged, and would never have solved them.

The version of Dantzig's story published by Robert Schuller contained a good deal of embellishment and misinformation which has since been propagated in urban legend-like forms of the tale such as the one quoted at the head of this page: Schuller converted the mistaken homework assignment into a "final exam" with 10 problems (8 of which were real and 2 of which were "unsolvable"), claimed that "even Einstein was unable to unlock the secrets" of the 2 extra problems, and erroneously stated that Dantzig's professor was so impressed that he "gave Dantzig a job as his assistant, and Dantzig has been at Stanford ever since."

George Bernard Dantzig (himself the son of a mathematician) received a Bachelor's degree from University of Maryland in 1936 and a Master's from the University of Michigan in 1937 before completing his Doctorate (interrupted by World War II) at UC Berkeley in 1946.  He later worked for the Air Force, took a position with the RAND Corporation as a research mathematician in 1952, became professor of operations research at Berkeley in 1960, and joined the faculty of Stanford University in 1966, where he taught and published as a professor of operations research until the 1990s.  In 1975, Dr Dantzig was awarded the National Medal of Science by President Gerald Ford.  Dantzig received the National Medal of Science for inventing linear programming and discovering methods that led to wide scale scientific and technical applications to important problems in logistics, scheduling, and network scheduling optimisation and the use of computers in making efficient use of mathematical theory.

He died at his Stanford home at age 90 on 13 May 2005.

This legend is used as the setup of the plot in the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting.  As well, one of the early scenes in the 1999 film Rushmore shows the main character daydreaming about solving the impossible question and winning approbation from all.

Source: and

Supposed Actual Essay Written by Applicant to NYU

3A.  In order for the admissions staff to get to know you better we ask that you answer the following question:

Are there any significant experiences you have had, or accomplishments you have realised, that have helped to define you as a person?

I am a dynamic figure, often seen scaling walls and crushing ice.  I have been known to remodel train stations on my lunch breaks, making them more efficient in the area of heat retention.  I translate ethnic slurs for Cuban refugees, I write award-winning operas, I manage time efficiently.

Occasionally, I tread water for three days in a row.

I woo women with my sensuous and godlike trombone playing, I can pilot bicycles up severe inclines with unflagging speed, and I cook 30-Minute Brownies in 20 minutes.  I am an expert in stucco, a veteran in love, and an outlaw in Peru.

Using only a hoe and a large glass of water, I once single-handedly defended a small village in the Amazon Basin from a horde of ferocious army ants.  I play bluegrass-cello, I was scouted by the Mets, I am the subject of numerous documentaries.  When I'm bored, I build large suspension bridges in my back yard.  I enjoy urban hang gliding.  On Wednesdays after school I repair electrical appliances free of charge.

I am an abstract artist, a concrete analyst, and a ruthless bookie.  Critics worldwide swoon over my original line of corduroy evening wear.  I don't perspire.  I am a private citizen, yet I receive fan mail.  I have been caller number 9 and have won the weekend passes.  Last summer I toured New Jersey with a travelling centrifugal-force demonstration.  I bat .400.

My deft floral arrangements have earned me fame in international botany circles.  Children trust me.

I can hurl tennis rackets at small moving objects with deadly accuracy.  I once read Paridise Lost, Moby Dick, and David Copperfield in one day and still had time to refurbish an entire dining room that evening.  I know the exact location of every food item in the supermarket.  I have performed several covert operations for the CIA.  I sleep once a week: when I do sleep, I sleep in a chair.  While on vacation in Canada, I successfully negotiated with a group of terrorists who had seized a small bakery.  The laws of physics do not apply to me.

I balance, I weave, I dodge, I frolic, and my bills are paid.  On weekends, to let off steam, I participate in full-contact origami.  Years ago I discovered the meaning of life but forgot to write it down.  I have made extraordinary 4-course meals using only a mouli and a toaster oven.

I breed award-winning clams.  I have won bullfights in San Juan, cliff diving competitions in Sri Lanka, and spelling bees at the Kremlin.  I have played Hamlet, performed open heart surgery, and have spoken with Elvis.

But I have not yet gone to college.

The applicant was accepted to NYU.


I think it would be funnier to end this with, "The applicant was not accepted to NYU because the committee felt the student was too flippant."

Only Breathe Gaseous Air

My friend Rhiain sent me a link to a very bizarre story about a guy who actually drank liquid nitrogen.  Liquid nitrogen keeps itself insulated with nitrogen gas, and any time something warm is too close it causes nitrogen to boil off, so the blob of actual liquid doesn't contact warm surfaces.  Apparently you can roll it around in your mouth as an impressive stunt, but unfortunately the author, who had done that, had thought you could also swallow it.  Turns out you can't.

So... the consequences...

My entire upper GI tract, from epiglottis to the bottom of the stomach was badly burned, scarred, and perforated.  The gas also expanded quite a bit while inside my body.  It filled my chest cavity with several litres of nitrogen gas, which was under enough pressure to collapse a lung.  So after what I'm told was a grueling all-night surgery, they removed part of my stomach, and had my entire digestive system, top to bottom, running on machine power for a while.  I also had a breather for the first day or so, until my lung was restored.  There are a few details which are considerably uglier which i shall spare you.

So... the recovery...

They were impressed with my recuperative skills.  I could breathe on my own completely after a few days.  I could sit up in bed after a week, and was walking in two.  About that time, I began to eat again as well.  After 4 weeks, I was up and about again.  Now, something like 8 weeks, I'm virtually healed, with the exception of a number of unsightly scars.


The good news is that I am the first documented medical case of a cryogenic ingestion.  Read the New England Journal of Medicine.  Three articles are in review now, and will be published soon, I'm told.

Ah, physics students.  I had a pair of physics student friends who performed an ad hoc experiment that wasn't nearly so catastrophic.  The shorter one reasoned that if breathing helium makes your voice go up, breathing a heavy inert gas like xenon should make it go down.  And wouldn't you know, they had a xenon tank handy, so naturally he took a hit...

Well, he confirmed that the voice drops, which was expected.  Then he started turning blue and couldn't really breathe.  The taller one reasoned that as helium is lighter than air, it would naturally stay toward the top of your lungs and clear itself out in short order, whereas xenon is much heavier than air and would stay stuck in your lungs.  So he picked up the shorter guy and flipped him upside down, holding him by his legs, and sure enough the xenon poured out.  The lesson?  Don't breathe xenon when you're rightside up, or helium when you're upside down.

Then again, sticking to regular air might not be a bad idea.  Oh, and make sure it's gaseous, not liquid.

Source: from the 18 August 2004 edition of Science

Shakespeare and the Spice Girls

It is very nearly impossible... to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind.

- James Baldwin

University as popular culture -
anything that piques students' interest?

by Steven Lagerfeld

Review of the book Clueless in Academe by Gerald Graff

Who's more clueless, college students or their professors?

Let's be postmodernists for a moment.  We have before us a puzzling text.  Its title playfully invites us to think that we will be considering the "cluelessness" of the university's professorial elite, but it is actually concerned with the baffled state of the American college student.  Its author is a leading partisan of postmodern literary theory, which is renowned for its opacity, yet he writes with lucidity and charm.  And while he advocates inducting students into the mysteries of theory, many of the steps he proposes to sharpen their thinking are the kinds of things that a commonsensical high-school English teacher might come up with.  There's a lot of "unpacking" to be done here.

We don't need to be postmodernists to see what's chiefly on Gerald Graff's mind in Clueless in Academe.  He is passionately worried about the alienation of so many college students from arguments and ideas.  He believes that without an understanding of how to make an argument - what Mr Graff calls "Arguespeak" - they won't be good students or, more important, good citizens: "Precisely due to the increasing saturation of both the media and the academy with power talk about hidden meanings [for example, of texts and trends], it seems more important than ever that schools and colleges train citizens who can detect the difference between genuine versions of such talk and pseudo-intellectual blather, and who can convey their judgments persuasively."

Sounds sensible enough.  And Mr Graff has some practical, if nontraditional, ideas about how to teach the art of rhetoric.  Does your otherwise apathetic high-schooler have an intense interest in motorcycles?  Then get him to research motorcycles and write about them.  Is your college sophomore having trouble getting a handle on John Locke or Richard Rorty in philosophy class?  Then he might use the handy "argument template" on page 169 to organise his thoughts and state his position.  I'll probably make use of that little device myself as I struggle to help recent graduates, now working in a magazine office, overcome the effects of four years of mind-fogging higher education.

But here is where things get postmodern again.  Mr Graff flirts with the notion that there might be something wrong with today's scholarship that accounts for students' difficulties - things like impenetrable jargon, needless complication and intellectual incoherence, especially in the humanities and social sciences.  But it's only a tease.  He isn't about to fault his colleagues for their self-indulgence.  And he doesn't mention that the modern university's speech codes and political correctness hardly encourage the kind of vigorous debate he prizes.

Indeed, the university that Mr Graff describes is a barely recognisable place of "paradigm-smashing, boundary-crossing, high-wire interdisciplinary scholarship."  People traffic in "big-picture ideas."  As an editor who deals largely with academic writers, I was delighted to learn that "the writing habits of the so-called public intellectual, once the exception to the rule," are now "seeping into academic writing generally."  I only wish that the manuscripts I see bore evidence of this trend.  I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I hear people like Mr Graff propose that university professors play a bigger role in teaching the young how to write.

True to his postmodernist colors, Mr Graff insists that the problem in reaching students is simply one of technique - the technique not just of offering argument templates and the like but of drawing students into the academic discourse they now find so unappealing.  He has a number of suggestions, some of them sensible, but the drift of his logic would carry students and the university as a whole deeper into Never Never Land.

Repeating points he made in his earlier book Beyond the Culture Wars, he says that the purpose of education is to teach students debate and interpretation, "quiz show information" be damned.  Never mind Shakespeare, let's get to the critics.  Is Shakespeare criticism too boring, too irrelevant?  Teach the criticism of the Spice Girls then - anything that piques students' interest and draws them into the critical palaver.  Along the way, he believes, we need to abandon the notion that the university represents something apart from the culture in which it resides: "The university is itself popular culture," Mr Graff writes, and it's foolish to insist on any kind of separation.

One wishes that Mr Graff, who clearly wants so much for his students, would want even more for them - like the basic knowledge that would add some substance to the arguments they are attempting to make.  (How many can say when the Civil War was fought?)  And one wishes that he would face up to the vacuities of the critical theory he defends.

Luckily, there are some signs that the era of postmodernist excess is passing.  At a conference on the crisis in theory in April, according to the Boston Globe's Alexander Star, leading critic Frederic Jameson warned his colleagues against "insider trading on the most advanced sensations from hip hop to Memento."  The conference participants were said to be quite glum about what theory had accomplished. Mr Graff's own book, a worthwhile work wrapped in an enigma, might serve as an interesting text for them to contemplate.

Mr Lagerfeld is the editor of The Wilson Quarterly

Source: Opinion Journal Tuesday 27 May 2003 © Dow Jones & Company all rights reserved

See also:

bulletWho Wants to Be a Genius (the next story, actually) - only children with the "rage to master" a skill can make it through the gruelling years of training needed to achieve expert ability - the rage to master may be the point at which nature unequivocally makes its constraints felt...
bulletFrom My Journal, 1993 - An example of our home schooling experience: I told my 10-year-old to write about lying because he hastily and unthinkingly told a lie about an incident at camp, a lie he later contradicted.  We talked at great length: What is a lie?  We decided the realistic question to ask yourself was not "Will I ever lie?" (since much of human interaction is based on something other than absolute truth in the interest of facilitating a smooth relationship) but "When should I be sure not to lie?"...

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