How to prepare a mousetrap fission demonstration

February 26th, 2015

The Harvard Natural Sciences Lecture Demonstrations and Snow Removal Team is seen, in this video, preparing a classic mousetrap-as-analog demonstration of how nuclear fission proceeds.

Their written explanation includes these comments:

We’ve got the set-up time down to 15 minutes, and like all nuclear devices, you only get one shot at this one.

The mouse trap chain reaction originated (we think) from Walt Disney’s 1950s film “Our Friend the Atom.”

J. Higbie (see Reference) has described a “better” mousetrap nuclear chain reaction but we prefer the old fashioned way. Setting up the last few traps while the students await the lecture to begin, dripping brow and shaking hands, certainly adds some drama. We think Enrico Fermi would agree.

Reference: J. Higbie: Am. J. Phys. 48 (1), 62 (1980)

1 Mouse traps are 10cm × 5cm in size, manufactured by Woodstream Corp., Lititz, PA or d-Con Corp., Montvale, NJ. Both are available in hardware stores.

Here is “Our Friend the Atom”:

(Thanks to Bob Kirshner for alerting us to this.)

NOTE: The idea may have originated ten years before the Disney film (which was released, on television, in 1957). See this paper, if you can get a copy of it:

Richard M. Sutton, A Mousetrap Atomic Bomb, AJP 15, 427-428, (1947)

Demonstration of the physics of sheep through a bottleneck

February 26th, 2015

A physics experiment of sheep passing through a bottleneck, which we featured some months ago, has now been formally published, and the researchers have released a video of the experiment. The study is:

Flow and clogging of a sheep herd passing through a bottleneck,” A. Garcimartín, J. M. Pastor, L. M. Ferrer, J. J. Ramos, C. Martín-Gómez, and I. Zuriguel, Physical Review E, vol. 91, no. 022808, 2015. (Thanks to Mason Porter and Ho-Kei Chan for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, at la Universidad de Navarra, Pamplona, report:

We present an experimental study of a flock passing through a narrow door. Video monitoring of daily routines in a farm has enabled us to collect a sizable amount of data. By measuring the time lapse between the passage of consecutive animals, some features of the flow regime can be assessed. A quantitative definition of clogging is demonstrated based on the passage time statistics. These display broad tails, which can be fitted by power laws with a relatively large exponent. On the other hand, the distribution of burst sizes robustly evidences exponential behavior. Finally, borrowing concepts from granular physics and statistical mechanics, we evaluate the effect of increasing the door size and the performance of an obstacle placed in front of it. The success of these techniques opens new possibilities regarding their eventual extension to the management of human crowds.

Here’s the video:

Magazine: The special TEETH issue is out

February 26th, 2015

The special Teeth issue (vol. 21, no. 1) of the magazine (the Annals of Improbable Research) is now out!

Articles include:

…and more, more, more, including new helpings of “Improbable Medical Review”, “Boys Will Be Boys”, “Soft Is Hard”, and other outstandingly improbable research snippets from many fields and countries.

We encourage you to subscribe.

Mel (right) says it’s swell.


The formal advance of the research on beer-vs-coffee spilling

February 25th, 2015

dressaireThe research on why foamy liquid (such as beer or latte) is less likely to slosh out of a cup than non-foamy liquid (such as black coffee), has now been formally published. The study is:

Damping of liquid sloshing by foams,” A. Sauret, F. Boulogne, J. Cappello, Emilie Dressaire [pictured here] and H.A. Stone, Physics of Fluids, vol. 27, 022103 (2015).

The slosh team presented their work in public a few months ago, at the Annual Meeting of the APS Division of Fluid Dynamics.

A few years, earlier, that annual meeting went gaga, to a very limited degree, for a research presentation about why a cup of coffee is so very easy to spill (or, looked at from the other direction, why it’s so difficult to NOT spill a cup of coffee). That coffee-spill research was eventually honored with the 2012 Ig Nobel Prize for fluid dynamics. Here’s the Ig Nobel citation for that prize:

Rouslan Krechetnikov and Hans Mayer for studying the dynamics of liquid-sloshing, to learn what happens when a person walks while carrying a cup of coffee.

REFERENCE: “Walking With Coffee: Why Does It Spill?” Hans C. Mayer and Rouslan Krechetnikov, Physical Review E, vol. 85, 2012.

In 2013, that coffee-spill research was the subject of a dramatic demonstration by Karolinska neuroscientist Gustav Nilsonne, at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. Here is an action photo from that demonstration:


A month from now, Gustav Nilsonne will perhaps repeat that demonstration, with both coffee and beer, when the 2015 Ig Nobel Eurotour descends on the Karolinka Institute, on Monday afternoon, March 30. (There will be a second show in Stockholm, at Boulevardteatern, in the evening.)

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

Camp vs. Kitsch: music investigations

February 25th, 2015

For those unsure about the sometimes-misunderstood difference between ‘Kitsch’ and ‘Camp’, Dr. Freya Jarman, who is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Music at the University of Liverpool, UK, provides a concise definition :

“Camp enjoys and glorifies its own awfulness where kitsch doesn‘t realise it.”

Dr. Jarman researches how ‘camp’ works, musically. See, for example: ‘Notes on Musical Camp’, in: The Ashgate Research Companion to Popular Musicology, ed. Derek B. Scott. (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2009), 189-203, which cites this 1969 performance by (the late) Liberace :

Unfortunately, another reference-video cited in the paper, Charlotte Church – Don’t Rain On My Parade appears to be damaged, so instead, with the definition above in mind . . .

Here is an Improbable mini-cornucopia of possible camp / kitsch renditions which might serve as a starting point for comparisons along the lines of – Camp? Kitsch? Neither? Both?

● Deee-Lite – Groove Is In The Heart
● Queen – I Want To Break Free
● Cliff Richard – Bachelor Boy
● Pet Shop Boys – Go West
● Rammstein – Seemann
● The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band – Canyons Of Your Mind
● Boney M – Daddy Cool
● Bee Gees – Stayin’ Alive
● Lang Lang – Schubert Standchen (Serenade)
● Mick Jagger & David Bowie – Dancing In The Street
● Robbie Williams – You Know Me
● Kenneth Williams – The Marrow Song (Oh! What a Beauty!)
● Katy Perry – California Gurls (featuring Snoop Dogg)