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Don't Rush Me


Yawning tortoises


. . . and more IgNobels awards



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October 05, 2011 - For about ten years now I have followed the exploits of one Marc Abrahams, editor and co-founder of the humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research. I know it sounds funny, but he makes me happy.

Some time ago and for some reason I signed up for the Improbable Research newsletter/e-mail.

And, every once in a while I get an e-mail at just the right time to make me smile. The one I really anticipate announces the IgNobel Awards. The ceremony is co-sponsored by the magazine, the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association, the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students, and the Harvard Computer Society.

The whole deal is to, and I quote, "first make people LAUGH, and then make them THINK."

Actual Nobel prize types dole out the awards and each winner gets only 60 seconds to make their acceptance speeches.

I love it! And, I wish actors would only talk a minute when they win awards – but that of course is a discussion for another day.

So, how did Marc make me smile last week? By putting in my e-mail box the announcement of this year's award-winning research projects.

• Physiology Prize: 'No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise."

• Chemistry Prize: for determining the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency, and for applying this knowledge to invent the wasabi alarm.

• Medicine Prize: for demonstrating that people make better decisions about some kinds of things — but worse decisions about other kinds of things‚ when they have a strong urge to urinate.

• Psychology Prize: for trying to understand why, in everyday life, people sigh.

• Literature Prize: for someone's "Theory of Structured Procrastination" which says: To be a high achiever, always work on something important, using it as a way to avoid doing something that's even more important..

What's fun about this is going back and reading scientists' research, why it was done, what they are trying to achieve and their conclusions. Here is something from the abstract on the phenomenon of contagious yawning by IgNobel prize winners Anna Wilkinson, Natalie Sebanz, Isabella Mandl, Ludwig Hubera. Their study focused on the famed red-footed tortoises . . .

"It has been hypothesized that it is a fixed action pattern for which the releasing stimulus is the observation of another yawn, that it is the result of non-conscious mimicry emerging through close links between perception and action or that it is the result of empathy, involving the ability to engage in mental state attribution.

"This set of experiments sought to distinguish between these hypotheses by examining contagious yawning in a species that is unlikely to show nonconscious mimicry and empathy but does respond to social stimuli: the red-footed tortoise . . ."

They taught a tortoise to yawn on command, put it with others of its species and watched and waited. And, what did they learn?

"The observer tortoises were presented with three conditions: real yawn, conditioned yawns and empty background. Again there was no significant difference between conditions.

"We therefore conclude that the red-footed tortoise does not yawn in response to observing a conspecific yawn. This suggests that contagious yawning is not the result of a fixed action pattern but may involve more complex social processes."

They used "conclude" in the previous paragraph, but I bet you don't know what their real conclusion was, do you? Think . . .

"The findings of this study suggest that contagious yawning may be controlled by higher level social processes as it is believed that tortoises do not possess nonconscious mimicry or empathy. However, the current data do not allow us to determine whether contagious yawning is a result of nonconscious mimicry or empathy . . . The empathy hypothesis predicts that we would expect to see little evidence of contagious yawning outside the higher primates and (possibly) domesticated dogs, species believed to be capable of empathy . . . Further research is needed to determine which of these social processes may be involved in controlling yawning."

Don's translation of science gobbily-gook: "We need more funding to study this some more."

Don is Assistant Publisher for Sherman Publications, Inc. He has worked for the company since 1985. He has won numerous awards for column, editorial and feature writing as well as for photography. He has two, sons Shamus and Sean and resides in the area. To read archived copies of his columns, click on his name, just under his picture up top . . . He can be e-mailed at: don@dontrushmedon.com
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