Cluttered Desk, Cluttered Mind? Maybe Not.

The holidays are long done, and the greyness of midwinter is all around us.  Whether you are back in your office now or working from home, sitting back down to start a new year at your work desk can be daunting, especially if the same piles of files, notebooks, junk mail, and post-it notes from 2021 are still there to greet you.  A cluttered desk is a cluttered mind, right?  Behavioral Science shows that for some of us, that’s absolutely true. But, if you happen to like your personal domain just the messy way it is, don’t let the organizers of the world desk-shame you.  According to scientific studies, and the example of several famous scientists, a perfectly organized and clean desk isn’t the only way to work in a productive and creative manner.  As Albert Einstein, captain of a famously messy desk himself, said: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

Albert Einstein, member of the Messy Desk Club

An organized desk is a wonderful thing, but it’s theorized that messy desks may actually allow for more creativity.  Einstein was just one of numerous scientists who had shockingly messy workspaces. If your desk is a mess then you are in the company of Steve Jobs, Alan Turing, Thomas Edison, and —  owner of a monumentally messy desk – Isaac Newton.  Psychologist Bill Crawford says that there is room in the world for both the organized and the cluttered.  According to him, the best desk is a desk that allows you to be productive and creative, no matter how it looks.   But for some people, it seems that being in the center of what looks like clutter actually allows them to see the full range of their work, remind them of projects, and, most importantly, see interconnections between everything they are working on.

Isaac Newton, member of the Messy Desk Club

People who work better from a clean desk should keep it clean and organized, because that is what’s good for them.  But there’s no need to side-eye that messy colleague.  Eric Abrahamson, author of  A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, says that: “While it might appear otherwise, a messy desk isn’t devoid of order.  What seems like a mess can actually be a highly effective prioritizing and accessing system. On a messy desk, the most time sensitive projects tend to be found at the top of the pile, while the work that gets ignored tends to get relegated to the bottom.  Not having a strict system can lend itself to more innovative ideas when you least expect it.”  Some of the messiest of desks, after all,  were the birthplace of some of the greatest ideas, such as the theory of gravity and the modern computer!

Alan Turing, member of the Messy Desk Club

The clean desk vs. messy desk debate has been going on so long that there have actually been some serious scientific studies on it.  Social Psychologist and Applied Behavioral Scientist Dr. Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota explored how a clean desk versus a messy desk might affect behavior.  Does clutter really clutter the mind?  In her study, researchers had participants fill out questionnaires in both orderly and cluttered spaces.  After this activity they were asked if they wanted to donate to charity, and offered a snack of an apple or some dark chocolate.  Those who were in the clean room were more likely to opt for philanthropy and a healthy snack.  Those in the messy room took the chocolate and fewer opted to donate.  Participants in each room were also asked to come up with new ideas for the use of ping pong balls.  Participants in both spaces came up with the same number of ideas, but the messy room’s ideas were rated as more creative by judges.  

Thomas Edison, Member of the Messy Desk Club, at his Messy Desk

Vohs concluded that “disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can encourage fresh insights.”  In contrast, orderly environments appear to encourage convention and playing it safe.  No matter what your desk looks like, the science says that there is room for all preferences at the…um…desk, because all no matter if you are an organizer or a clutterer, your way of working has its advantages.  Happy National Clean Your Desk (or not) Day!

References and Further Reading:

Talk by Eric Abrahamson:

Dr. Bill Crawford: What Does Your Desk Say About You?

Successful People with Messy Desks:

The Work of Dr. Kathleen Vohs (link to article on study at bottom of page):

Thanks, Science! The Best Discoveries of 2021

Happy 2022!  2021 was certainly…a year.  Although things have not been easy, 2021 was a benchmark year for science.  The biggest science story of 2021 is undoubtedly the effort to develop and distribute vaccines across the entire world, all while responding our ever-evolving and wily foe, COVID.  The scientific community across the world has seen some of its darkest and its finest hours in this worldwide fight, and we at High Touch High Tech salute every single scientific professional involved in this profound historical moment. 

In times like these, it’s easy for other scientific discoveries to slip through the cracks.  As 2022 dawns, let’s take a moment to ponder some of the other discoveries that made 2021 such an important year for science.


People all over the world cheered when both the United States, and later China, landed autonomous rovers on Mars.  For the Perseverance Mars Rover Team, it first involved a hair-raising parachute landing on Mars.  Since the Perseverance Rover landed, it has been able to launch a mini-helicopter that was the first controlled human flight on another planet.  It has also converted Carbon Dioxide into Oxygen to prove it could be done for future colonization on Mars, and begun to do what it was specially designed for: gathering samples of Mars that will be sent back to earth in hopes of detecting signs of alien life.  The Perseverance Rover could revolutionize our understanding of our place in the universe by answering one of the biggest questions in all of science!

CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


23,000 years ago, a rather flat-footed teenager walked along the shores of an ancient lake that is now located in New Mexico’s White Sands National Park.  In 2021, this now-fossilized stroll revolutionized our understanding of how long humans have been in the Americas, and opened fascinating new questions of how humans arrived here.  It was once believed that Indigenous Americans had only been in America for about 13,000 years, descended from a small band that migrated across a land bridge in Asia.  These footprints, described by archaeologist Ciprian Ardelean as “very close to finding the Holy Grail,” cast the old theory, known as “Clovis First” into serious doubt.  The footprints were made at a time when it is believed that glaciers had walled off passage to the Americas, raising intriguing new questions about Indigenous American arrival.  Could it have been by sea?  We hope the coming years will bring us more answers to this fascinating mystery.


This milestone medical breakthrough was understandably overshadowed by other issues in global public health, but it represents a moment that both medical researchers and their patients have been waiting for for years.  In October 2020, doctors in New York City’s Langone Medical Center transplanted a kidney from a genetically-altered pig into a human.  They were able to monitor the transplant extensively and confirmed that it was working normally, although the long-term prospect of rejection is still unknown.  The field of “Xenotransplantation,” or transplanting tissues from non-humans into humans, is still new but could soon develop a sustainable source of organs for people in need across the world.

Adyah Ningtyas
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Common


The discovery of a very big Warty Pig painted in a cave in Sulawesi, Indonesia, pushed the earliest known instance of an animal image back by several thousand years.   Sketched in red ochre, the Warty Pig (pictured above – it’s a real species still living in Indonesia today), was dated by the mineral formations on its surface.  It’s not the oldest known painting in the world – hand stencils in a cave in Spain or possibly even a drawn-on rock from South Africa may be older.  But, the previous record-holder for oldest animal image comes from France’s Chauvet Cave, with a date of 33,000 years ago.  The Warty Pig painting doesn’t just tell us more about the birth of human symbolic and abstract thinking, it also provides the earliest evidence of human settlement in the region, giving more credence to the theory that early humans migrated from Africa to Australia 65,000 years ago.

Pablo Carlos Budassi
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


In the wonderfully-named Whirlpool Galaxy (pictured above), only 28 million light years away, astronomers have pinpointed a large and as-yet-mysterious planet, the first ever identified outside of our own Milky Way Galaxy.  The planet seems to be orbiting a star that itself is orbiting with an extremely dense object, possibly a neutron star or black hole. The dense object causes the X-rays from the star’s gas to glow, and the possible exoplanet was spotted when it passed in front of the glow.  Believed to be about the size of Saturn, the exoplanet may not return to visibility for 70 years, but it does reinforce the potential of X-ray wavelengths as a strategy to locate distant planets.

Mike Pennington / Stegosaurus skeleton, National Museums of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh

In case you want more scientific breakthroughs (and who doesn’t?) here are a few more amazing discoveries from 2021:






Sources and Further Reading:

National Geographic:


The Natural History Museum of Utah:

What do Astronomers Eat for Breakfast the Morning their 10 Billion Dollar Telescope Launches into Space?


Hang on, science fans, this one is a nail-biter for sure.  The James Webb Space Telescope, currently set to launch (hopefully) on December 24th, 2021, represents billions of dollars of investment, 25 years in development, and the contributions of a massive team of scientists and engineers from all over the world.  The “Webb” is said to be the single most complicated science project that humans have ever attempted.  Should the Webb make it to space and function perfectly, however, it also has the biggest potential for discovery of any scientific instrument ever made.  We’re talking discovering-alien-life-forms-and-seeing-the-origins-of-our-universe BIG.  The complexity of the project can make the Webb seem intimidating, so this week we will do what High Touch High Tech does best — making the awesome science behind awesome things more accessible.  So, how does the Webb work?  Why is it so important?

The Webb Telescope: potentially the most profound science that science has ever scienced

This intimidating machine is already a work of engineering triumph.  First proposed in the late 1980’s, the Webb has been in the works for 25 years. It represents the life’s work of several scientists and engineers, all of whom will have the most stressful morning of their life when the telescope launches into space!  The Webb is different than the Hubble Telescope, which has brought many amazing revelations in its decades of service.  The Webb is specially designed to detect even the tiniest quantities of infrared light, not visible light as the Hubble does.  Engineers attest that the Webb can detect the infrared signature of a single bee on the moon as seen from earth. Creating a machine of this precision was a 25-year challenge, and the international efforts to create, test, and perfect it represent the very best of scientific endeavor.

This iconic image, captured by the Hubble, is known as “The Hubble Ultra Deep Field.” (Yes, those are ALL separate galaxies.)

An all-infrared telescope came with incredible design challenges.  For one, to detect distant infrared, it needed to be very large.  The mirror alone is 21 feet high, dwarfing the Hubble’s 8 foot mirror.  How to get such a large apparatus into space?  In a never-before-attempted design maneuver, The Webb team designed the huge telescope to fold up like origami so it could be packed into a rocket.  Once it is in space, the telescope will go through a 178-point sequence of unfolding itself!  Every single one of the 178 mechanisms must work perfectly, and so the efforts to ensure the Webb’s perfection went to great lengths.  Every mechanism was tested and retested using a series of counterbalances that replicate zero gravity.  A huge vacuum chamber was used to test the operation in the vacuum of space, AND the vacuum chamber was brought down to -400 F to test the machine’s operations at cryogenic temperatures.

The Webb’s primary mirror undergoing cryogenic testing

Why so cold?  As if flawlessly assembling itself in space wasn’t a big enough challenge, in order to be able to sense tiny amounts of infrared light, the telescope also has to operate at very, very, cold temperatures.  Although our eyes can’t see it, infrared is everywhere, and it gives off heat.  In order to sense tiny amounts of infrared in the distance, the telescope itself has to be heat-proof, or the instruments attached to it will only read the heat they are giving off.  This means the telescope will be operating a million miles from earth to escape the heat from the sun and the earth itself.  To keep it -400 F, it has been equipped with a series of 5 huge sunshields, each bigger than a tennis court and thinner than a human hair.  Only when the telescope is unfolded, in position a million miles from earth, and operating at -400 F will it be able to send its first images.

Webb scientists preparing the sunshades

What will it show us? For what the Webb could potentially reveal, 25 years of blood, sweat, and tears are entirely worth it.  Hang on to your seat, science fans, because this telescope is DESIGNED TO SEE THE EARLIEST LIGHT OF THE BIG BANG!!  13.5 billion years ago, the big bang produced the first light.  As the universe has expanded, that light has been travelling out at the edge of the expanding universe.  The light has been travelling so long that it has “redshifted,” or shifted to entirely infrared wavelengths.  The astonishing sensitivity of the telescope is designed to pick up the light that came from the beginning of the universe.  The Webb was designed, quite literally, to see back in time. As if that is not enough, the Webb is also packing spectroscopy instruments capable of analyzing the chemical biomarkers of nearby planets, giving us clues about planets or moons that may be harboring alien life. The Webb has the capability to answer two of the greatest questions in all of science: how the universe came to be, and if we are not alone in it.  If it functions well, the Webb is fully expected to revolutionize the field of astronomy for the next decade or more.  We at High Touch High Tech send our congratulations and thanks to the entire James Webb Space Telescope team for their decades of work in the name of scientific discovery!

Sources and Further Reading:

The Engineers and Scientists who built the Webb tell their epic story (Highly Recommended!):

A Useful General Overview:

The Nerve-Racking Process of Launching the Webb:

A Webb Engineer Explains its Importance:

Chocolate warms our hearts… but first it feeds our brains!

Admit it, you can taste this image.

It’s one of the most festive weeks of the year!  For many people, this time of year involves some combination of twinkling lights, meetings with friends and family, maybe a goofy sweater or two, and of course, some CHOCOLATE.  The holidays tend to bring an abundance of good food, but even with all of the figgy puddings and sugar plums to choose from, doesn’t it seem like there is always some kind of chocolate within reach somewhere during this particular week of the year?  Why is chocolate the treat much of the world seems to crave, in good times and bad? From a biological point of view, it may have something to do with the fact that the chocolate we love is derived from a plant that has powerful psychoactive properties, Theobroma Cacao

Theobroma Cacao, the plant that makes the magic possible.

When Montezuma met the Spanish conquistadores in 1519, he intended to overwhelm them with a lavish display of royal hospitality.  To impress, the emperor of six million people brought out fifty golden jugs of one of his most potent weapons – chocolate.  However, what he served to the awed Spanish was not at all like the sweet chocolate we enjoy today.  The cacao plant is native to the Amazon region, and Montezuma was serving up an elite tradition of chocolate that had begun 3,000 years before the Spanish arrival.  The Spanish experienced a drink made of the beans of the cacao pod, ground and mixed with water, vanilla, chile, and cornmeal, which had been poured back and forth at a height to create an enticing, bitter, melt-in-your-mouth froth.  In an instant, the global obsession with chocolate was born.   

We owe Indigenous Central Americans our thanks for giving the world the gift of chocolate!

Chocolate can now be found anywhere in the world, and it’s easy to forget that under the bright wrappers and diverse flavors, chocolate comes from a plant with a very powerful chemical profile.  The cacao tree and its precious seedpods only grow in equatorial regions of the world, and produce a bean that is much more than just tasty.  Cacao beans are psychoactive, with multiple compounds capable of stimulating the production of neurotransmitters in the brain.  Through their bitter and frothy beverage, Mesoamericans were the first to enjoy the stimulating effects of Theobromine, a chemical in cacao that is very similar to caffeine.  Theobromine increases blood flow, inducing a feeling of mental alertness, vigor, and overall well-being. On top of this dynamic duo, cacao also has Tryptophan and Phenylethylamine, among many other compoundsTryptophan assists in the creation of the “feel-good” neurotransmitter Serotonin.  Phenylethylamine assists with the creation of another happiness-inducing neurotransmitter, Dopamine.  These delightful neurotransmitters, plus a surprising number of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds, can help explain humankind’s passionate three-thousand-year love affair with chocolate.

These pods of happiness are surprisingly delicate.

The cacao beans that furnish this phytochemical feast are actually quite challenging to grow. Theobroma Cacao plants need just the right conditions and lots of care to fight the diseases and pests that typically attack them, not to mention just the right insects to fertilize them.  There are three main varieties of cacao bean available today, and within each variety there are several, often  genetically different, hybrid strains.  Relatively hardy Forestera beans make up 85 percent of the world’s chocolate.  Most prized, rare, and delicate are Criollo beans, which provide 3% of the world’s chocolate.  The hybrid of Forestera and Criollo is known as Trinitario, was created in the 18th century when a hurricane nearly caused the Criollo variety to go extinct.  Although Criollo plants are not productive on a scale that can meet global demand, they produce flavors and aromas that are more complex and rich.  Much like wine, Criollo can be described as having notes of fruit, tobacco, or caramel.  Criollo was the preferred variety of the Aztec and Maya, and most likely the one that the Spanish enjoyed as part of Montezuma’s hospitality.

Roasted cacao beans, the end result of lots of labor

Go to the supermarket today, and in the candy aisle you will see an array of chocolate worthy of an Aztec Emperor.  An Aztec Emperor would surely recoil at the sweet, milky flavors of chocolate today, but that is the beauty in the biology of chocolate.  Cacao’s pleasing array of phytochemicals and rich flavors practically guarantee an enjoyable experience.  Whether taken bitter by an emperor or sweet on a holiday visit, on the molecular level, chocolate is sure to satisfy your brain and not just your sweet tooth.

Sources and Further Reading:

An Introduction to the Science of Chocolate:

A General history of Chocolate:

The different types of Cacao:,higher%20yield%20of%20cacao%20pods.

Africa and the Global Cocoa Trade:

A small farmer’s up-close look at harvesting, fermenting and roasting Cacao beans:

The Neurochemistry of Chocolate:

Scientific Paper on the Health Benefits of Chocolate:

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: How this Year’s Nobel Prize in Medicine Cracked an Ancient Mystery

Renaissance Artist Raphael’s monumental “School of Athens,” 1511, depicts the famous ancient thinkers and inquirers that inspired the Italian Renaissance, which in turn inspired the Scientific Revolution. Generation by generation, Science advances.

 Every year since 1901, the Nobel Prize ceremonies show us the incredible discoveries at the cutting edge of science, and remind us of the nonstop movement of scientific progress.  Just last year the awards were given for the revolutionary gene-editing technology known as CRISPR, and for proving the existence of black holes!  This year, two scientists, Sykuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselman, were awarded the prize in physics for their looks into the future predicting global warming.  Another physics prize went to Georgio Parisi, for his research in quantum physics that covers the interplay of everything from atoms to planets.  In Chemistry, Benjamin List and David Macmillan won the prize for their work in “organocatalysis,” an elegant, precise new way to build organic molecules, thus making the work of chemists all over the world much easier and cheaper.  However, in Medicine and Physiology, David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian won for the kind of discovery that represents one of the best aspects of science: its persistence.  Julius and Patapoutian have given the world an amazing discovery that was built on literally thousands of years of inquiry, and passed from generation to generation until at last, the solution was found. 

Every discovery in science lays a foundation for the next

Imagine walking barefoot into a cool stream on a hot day, feeling river pebbles press into the bottom your cool, submerged feet as the hot sun warms the top of your head.  For centuries, humans have tried to understand just what it is that allows us to have such magnificent, multilayered experiences of touch and sensation.  How is it that we feel heat, and cold?  How is it that we can touch, and feel? This year, Julius and Patapoutian have cracked the secret, and discovered the exact way that temperature and mechanical stimuli are converted into electrical impulses in our nervous system.

The ability to sense hot, cold, and pressure are absolutely integral to human survival, and truly one of medicine’s most enduring questions.  In the 4th century B.C., no less than Aristotle theorized that nerves were controlled by and connected to the heart. In the Middle Ages, Muslim doctors such as Ibn Sina fully described the physical appearance of nerves throughout the body.  In the 17th century, Rene Descartes theorized the tiny threads leading from the skin to the brain somehow relayed signals.  But what exactly did they relay, and how?  By the 18th century physiologists were beginning to make connections between nerves and the conduction of electrical signals.  In 1944, another pair of researchers, Joseph Erlanger and Herbert Gasser, received the Nobel Prize for their discovery of different types of nerve fibers that react to specific types of stimuli, such as painful or non-painful stimuli.  After centuries of inquiry, it was understood that nerve cells are highly specialized for detecting different types of stimuli, allowing us to feel the many sensations that are such an essential part of being alive.

Ibn Sina (Avincenna), a father of modern medicine, lived 980-1037 CE

Building on the previous generation’s discovery that nerve cells were specific and specialized, the opportunity finally emerged to understand exactly how specific nerve cells worked.  Julius saw a potential for discovery in the compound Capsaicin, the compound responsible for the burning, spicy sensation of chili peppers.  In the 1990’s, when his research began, no one understood how this compound actually worked to cause sensation.  It was a riddle that eventually became the gateway to the 2021 Nobel Prize.  By collecting a library of millions of DNA fragments  that corresponded to sensory neurons responsible for pain, touch, and heat, Julius and his team made a big bet one of the DNA fragments would contain the gene that encoded the protein capable of reacting to capsaicin, and they found it!  Dr. Julius was able to carefully test the specific capsaicin receptor, named TRPV1.  Experiments revealed that the sensory receptor TRPV1 was an ion channel that opened in conditions hotter than 109 degrees F, and conducted a sensation of painful heat to the brain.

The TRPV receptors at work

Working together, Julius and Patapoutian then used the compound Menthol to discover another such specific ion channel that relays the sensation of cold, TRPM8.  The function of these ion channels was definitively proven when experimental mice with the TRPM8 gene deleted displayed drastically less sensitivity to cold!  As this research continued over years, Dr. Patapoutian was able to tackle the mystery of the sensation of touch, discovering a previously unknown ion channel in called PIEZO2, that opens when pressure is applied to the skin, and relays the signal to the brain.  Again, experimental mice with the PIEZO2 gene deleted displayed much less sensitivity to touch.

What would our lives be without the ability to feel touch?

Thanks to this monumental research, it is now understood that TRP channels and PIEZO2 channels are the reason that we can sense temperature, heat pain, and touch.  Many functions in the body rely on these channels for our daily function, including things like urination, respiration, core body temperature, and protective reflexes.  What will the next generation of scientists find when they take up this inquiry?  The future looks very bright:  this discovery may open the doors for new and effective ways to stop pain in its tracks, at its source.  Thank you to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, and thank you to all of the Nobel Laureates for adding new links to the great chain of inquiry that is science.

Sources and Further Reading:

A layman’s explanation of Julius and Patapoutian’s discovery:

A scientific explanation:

All 2021 Nobel Winners:

2021 Medicine and Physiology Nobel Laureate Lecture:

The Long History of Nerve Science:

Sometimes, Science is Funny

It’s Nobel Prize season!  On December 10th, scientists from all over the world will converge on Stockholm, Sweden, in order to convey the highest honor in all of science.  We will be reporting on that solemn ceremony next week,  but this week we would like to cover the younger, goofier, but no-less-scientific cousin of the Nobel Prize, the hilarious tradition known as the Ig Nobel PrizeThe Ig Nobel prize is a tradition dating back to the ancient days of 1991, when founder Marc Abrahams, a researcher with a background in applied mathematics, decided it was time to highlight those scientific studies “that make you laugh, but then they make you think.”

Marc at the 2008 Ig Lectures

The Ig Nobel Prize goes to real scientific studies made by scientists around the world.  Past winners include the chemist who created bright blue Jell-O, a pair of doctors who created the protocol to treat a man after he gets … caught in his zipper, a biologist who fed Prozac to clams and then tested them for overall wellbeing, and a team of scientists who taught pigeons to tell the difference between a Monet and a Picasso.  Since the inception of the Ig Nobel, the award’s popularity has been growing and in recent years, Marc Abrahams and his crew receive up to 9,000 nominations per year.  The irreverent awards ceremony, where Ig Nobel winners are given their prizes by actual Nobel winners, is said to be “the highlight of the scientific calendar.” (Sorry, Nobel Prize ceremony.)

If you don’t know who the artist is, you could ask a pigeon.

Although all of these studies might seem silly or obscure, each one points the way to some kind of deeper truth.  This year’s winners include biologist Dr. David Carrier of the University of Utah, who won an Ig Nobel for investigating if beards on human males evolved to protect the face from punches.  The question of why human males retain such a potential for massive facial hair has long been in debate, with even the venerable Charles Darwin theorizing that beards were more about visual prestige and attracting mates.  Since Dr. Carrier and his team could not actually punch human subjects, they tested sheep’s fleece with a punch-like hydraulic press.  The result: the fleece absorbed 30% more shock than bare skin!  This indicates that human male facial hair may be more functional than once thought, AND even that humans may have evolved to fight with fists as our primary weapon.

Beards: scientifically proven to be awesome

The Ig Nobels celebrate the infinite curiosity of scientists, and highlight the endless potential of scientific discoveries.  Science is often thought of as staid and serious, but the Ig Nobel ceremony brings a lighthearted note to the scientific community.  If you are a science fan, or just like to laugh (or both), we at HTHT highly recommend visiting the Ig Nobel website, Improbable Research.  Run by founder Marc Abrahams, it includes all past winners with citations to their work, a delightful weekly podcast on “Improbable Science,”  videos of recent ceremonies, short talks from winners, and even the pantheon of members of The Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists.  If you’ve ever wanted to see a Nobel Laureate wearing an emergency face mask made out of a bra (an awesome Ig Nobel-winning innovation by Dr. Elena Bodnar), you will need to visit the Improbable Research website.  Here at HTHT we like to make science fun, and we’re glad the Ig Nobels share our mission too!

Resources and Further Reading:

All of the winners of the Ig Nobel, with links to the studies:

Improbable Research home page:

2021 Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony (socially distanced but still super funny):

2019 Ig Nobel Ceremony LIVE at Harvard University:

A compilation of some of Ig Nobel’s greatest hits:

Everyone loves Christmas lights! Why?

CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If you celebrate Christmas, these days your mind is probably turning to that eternal question… where did I put the Christmas lights?  No matter if you celebrate Christmas or not, or if you keep your lights up all year round instead of just for a season, it seems that most people can agree that those lovely little lights are a visual treat.  Their warm glow and beautiful colors have been pleasing people around the world since Thomas Edison premiered the first string lights in New York City on Dec 21, 1880.  Although they were large bulbs of plain white, and hanging over a walkway, not a tree, even the dignified New York Times newspaper felt their effect, as the reviewer declared them “beautiful to look upon.” How did string lights become so popular, and so strongly linked to the holiday season that they are now commonly referred to as “Christmas lights?”

The massive popularity of Christmas lights is a tale of technical know-how with plenty of business savvy on the side.  Thomas Edison is often hailed as the inventor of string lights, but in fact, Joseph Swan, an inventor in the UK, was the first to develop the beautiful invention that he called “fairy lights.” However, Thomas Edison, in true Thomas Edison fashion, perfected Swan’s already existing design for mass production, and claimed the design for himself.  When he wasn’t redesigning other people’s inventions, Edison was quite the self-promotional showman and he traveled frequently, giving spectacular demonstrations of his latest electrical marvels.  In his lifetime, the United States was just barely beginning to become electrified.  Cleverly, Thomas Edison used Swan’s fairy lights as a way to entertain, impress, and promote electricity itself. 

Thomas Edison

One of Edison’s main selling points for electrification was the fact that, compared to burning coal or gas in one’s house, electricity was relatively safe.  His mission to promote electricity was helped by the fact that previous Christmas custom had people lighting REAL candles on a Christmas tree, inside.  Although people tended to be very cautious with this beautiful custom and did not usually leave it unsupervised, accidents still happened.  To replace such an obvious fire hazard with a much safer electric one was a stroke of genius.  With his new string lights, he was able to promote both the product and electricity itself to fascinated audiences all over the world.

Helena Jacoba
CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Edison was an inventor, but he was also an excellent marketer.  He knew that Swan’s lights would be a perfect item to catch the public’s attention, just like they catch our attention even today.  However, it took a few years before fairy lights were definitively linked to the holiday season as they are now. Working closely with the Vice President of the Edison Electric Light Company, Edward H. Johnson, in 1882 the pair developed a set of colored lights in red, white, and blue, perfect for a tree.  Edward Johnson lived in a part of New York City that had recently been electrified, and so he was able to hand-wire 80 lights to a generator to illuminate his tree, which he conveniently placed in a street-facing parlor window.  On a rotating platform.  The press was drawn like moths to flame.  A writer for the Detroit Post and Tribune said of the lights: “one could hardly imagine anything prettier.”

CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The popularity of Christmas lights grew right alongside the popularity of electricity. In 1894, president Grover Cleveland was an early adopter of the trend, electrifying the White House Christmas tree.  The first strings of commercial Christmas lights premiered for public sale, at a price of 12 dollars, or 350 dollars today.  Today in the United States, people buy 150 million dollars’ worth of light sets every year, which light 80 million homes and consume 6 percent of the nation’s electricity in December.  Thomas Edison would be very pleased.

CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Sources and Further Reading:

A quick overview of the history and technology of Christmas lights:

Edison’s Christmas lights:

Edison’s Christmas lights meet his marketing savvy:

Edison’s inventions that were other people’s first:

Edison and Swan:

The Violent, Vicious, Totally World-Altering History of…Pumpkin Spice?

Your pie has a secret! A dark one.
medea_materialCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg.   This spice blend, known today as Pumpkin Spice, conjures up thoughts of wholesome fall fun – corn mazes, trick or treating, walking on crisp fall days and of course, that American Thanksgiving favorite, pumpkin pie.  American people’s love for the pleasing, nostalgia-inducing taste of this spice blend means you can drink it as a beverage, eat it in baked goods from granola bars to Oreos, and even use it in soap, shampoo, and.. FISHING LURES? Pumpkin pie spice conjures memories that are wholesome and sweet, and people’s obsession with it often generates some good-humored mockery.  But what’s REALLY in that latte you’re enjoying?  The origin of pumpkin spice isn’t so sweet, but it’s definitely spicy!  About 500 years ago, the drive to obtain the spices in your pumpkin spice Cheerios was one of the most consequential moments in human history.  Your Thanksgiving pie comes with an incredible legacy –under that dollop of whipped cream is the beginning of the modern age, shocking levels of violence, and even the origin of The United States of America itself.

An innocent nutmeg just doing its thing. The brown nut inside the fruit is ground for Nutmeg. The red membrane is another spice known as Mace.

Nutmeg in particular has a large slice of history’s pie.  In the European Middle Ages, exotic nutmeg was the ultimate status good, worth much more than its weight in gold.  People used it as an aphrodisiac, and it was thought especially good for warding off the plague, but no one had any idea where it came from.  One of the main reasons for all of the bold sailing voyages of the “European Age of Discovery” was to find the sources of the nutmeg that Europeans craved.   In the process, Europeans reached and began to colonize places as far-flung as The Americas and Australia, initiating the early modern age and laying the foundations for our current globalized world.  Nutmeg is native to a place called the Banda Archipelago, in Eastern Indonesia.  In the 1500’s, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch showed up there, seeking this spice that was more precious than gold. They were willing to do anything to secure it.

The tiny Banda Archipelago is part of modern Indonesia’s Malluku Province, seen here in red.

The native people of Banda had been building their trading empire with Asia for centuries, and were wealthy and well organized, but they did not count on the lengths the Dutch would go to for profit.  To ensure a monopoly over the Nutmeg trade, the Dutch massacred almost the entire population of The Bandas, keeping only a few as slaves to work the nutmeg orchards.  This marked the start of centuries of deadly, often genocidal war between the Dutch and Indonesian people. The Dutch, however, were much more disturbed by the presence of some ragtag Englishmen who were claiming a tiny island in the archipelago, Run, for England.  Both the English and the Dutch in Indonesia were some of the toughest, wiliest, most skilled fighters either kingdom had to offer.  The fighting between them was brutal, often with many innocent native Indonesian lives as collateral.  Giles Morton’s amazing book Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, describes the swashbuckling, and tremendously consequential, battles for The Bandas in detail.

The Island of Run today.
Georg Holderied from Basel, SwitzerlandCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To maintain their monopoly, and shake those pesky English, the Dutch eventually offered an island-swap for peace.  In exchange for Run and the nutmeg monopoly, in 1667 the English were given a much less important and less profitable island held by the Dutch:  New Amsterdam, otherwise known as Manhattan Island.  New Amsterdam became New York, the English presence in North America was firmly established, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Eventually the Dutch monopoly on nutmeg was lost, and their hard-won empire in Indonesia began to crumble.  Nutmeg and its Indonesian cousin, cloves, became cheap enough to drink and eat every day.  New York, and indeed the entire country of the United States would have been vastly different – or never even existed at all — without pumpkin spice.  If someone makes fun of you for eating your 4th pumpkin spice pop tart of the day, now you can let them know that it’s not trendy junk food, it’s one of the most important substances in modern history.

The Island of Manhattan today.

Sources and Further Reading:

Pumpkin Spice in food:

Pumpkin Spice in OTHER things:

Nutmeg History and Use Overview:

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg:

Video Journey to the Spice Islands:

Why does kindness exist in the world?

November 13th is World Kindness Day, and with it, the seven days of kindness challenge.  Do you remember how you felt the last time you experienced a “random act of kindness?”  Ever had a stranger give you a compliment that made your day?  When did you last give that universal little wave of thanks when another driver let you in on a busy street?   Even in these challenging times, kindness is all around us, and the wonderful feeling of human connection through kindness is needed more than ever.  The science of kindness is a rapidly evolving field encompassing several disciplines, and to make it even more complicated, it also touches on some of the biggest questions about ethics, morality, and what it means to be human.  Where once the assumption was that humans are fundamentally competitive and selfish, more science is showing us that humans (and many non-human animals, too) may instead be fundamentally wired to be kind and compassionate.  Even better, kindness can be taught, learned, and practiced daily for some amazing health benefits!

Many scientists have wrestled seriously with the question of kindness and compassion and why it exists. Charles Darwin wondered, if life was about the survival of the fittest, why then did animals sometimes act in an altruistic manner: sacrificing their own personal gain to help others, even those not related to them?  Darwin’s answer was the idea of “inclusive fitness.” For example, a bee may sacrifice itself for the queen, and that sacrifice will help the entire hive to survive to reproduce.  Darwin’s concept of inclusive fitness helped explain that altruism does have reason to exist, and further exploration of WHY it exists was taken up in the 1960’s by researcher Richard Dawkins.  In his landmark book The Selfish Gene, he theorized that altruistic behaviors are wired into us by evolution because throwing yourself in front of a lion to protect your children helps your genes to survive, not because any inherent morality tells us to protect the weak.  This is why kind behaviors are still selected for and exist today, but deep down everything we do is self-interested even if it appears kind and selfless. 

For years it has been generally accepted that human kindness is a thin veneer over our animal nature, and most of animal nature is selfish and competitive.  In the 21st century, there are  growing numbers of scientists and thinkers who see that there is much more to the story of human kindness and compassion than once thought, and the concept of humans as fundamentally self-interested competitors may not be completely accurate.  Kindness and compassion appear to have numerous health benefits, right down to the molecular level, that go far beyond mere survival. 

The field of neuroscience especially has shown that our brains and bodies are deeply oriented towards kindness. Dr. Dacher Keltner, head of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley, has shown that our brains are designed to release a burst of oxytocin, “the love hormone,” from even small acts of kindness.  In fact, it has been recently proven that we have a network in our brain called “mirror cells” that literally predisposes us to empathy on the cellular level.  The GGSC studies show that over time, through just one act of kindness a day, participants were able to increase their overall life satisfaction and decrease chronic pain, partly because kindness releases feel-good hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin and helps lower inflammatory hormones like cortisol.  People who did Buddhist Loving-Kindness meditations for just 8 weeks, sending out unconditional  love to the world each day, were even found to have longer telomeres, the part of DNA that is thought to control aging. From the results, it has been theorized that daily kindness is just as much a predictor of health as smoking, and Dr. Keltner theorizes that a life focused on kindness could increase lifespan as much as six to ten years!

Recent science has proven that kindness is one of the only things in the world that doubles when you share it:  kindness releases a boost of endorphins and hormones in the giver and receiver alike!  Just seven days of kind acts were seen to have a significant benefit on subjects’ stress levels, overall sense of wellbeing, and even chronic pain.  How can you share in the benefits of kindness?  Fortunately, researchers indicate that it can be learned and practiced just like any skill.  You don’t have to do something grand like paying off your neighbor’s mortgage to get the health benefits of altruism, and you don’t have to be born a saint to be kind each day.  In Dr. Keltner’s study, small things like paying off an expired meter, helping someone carry something, or even a great, genuine compliment are enough to start accruing the health benefits of kindness.  The potential for kind and helpful acts is everywhere, but it’s not always easy to know what to do or how to do it.   We know that your own body rewards you tremendously for being kind, just as it does when you exercise.  So why not practice building your “kindness muscle” and challenge yourself for seven days?  The Random Acts of Kindness Project, sponsors of World Kindness Day, have a menu of small acts you can do, and many more resources for learning, teaching, and understanding the wonderful – and still mysterious —  phenomenon of human kindness. 

Follow the links below for suggestions and inspiration. If you’re feeling experimental, try one kind act a day for at least a week, and see how you feel!

The Random Acts of Kindness Project (Sponsors of World Kindness Day) webpage with suggestions for a Seven-day kindness challenge:

The Basics of Altruism in Nature:

An animated summary of The Selfish Gene:

Richard Dawkins discussing Altruism & The Selfish Gene:

Mental and Physical Benefits of Kindness:

Frans De Waal TED talk about Morality in Animals:

Dacher Keltner TED talk on Empathy and Compassion:

In Honor of Dr. Norman Ikari, Warrior and Scientist

The Unit Insignia of the 442nd Infantry Regiment, in which Dr. Ikari served during WWII. The 442nd is the most decorated Military Unit in all of US Military history.

Since the advent of modern science, the link between science and the military has been very strong.  Not only in terms of the technology produced, but in the number of veterans who went on to advance many different fields of science during and after their time in the military.  American Veterans have used the military training to launch careers in fields such as aeronautics, computing, chemistry, and physics.  A large number of veterans also went on to further the field of medicine.   Today we profile Dr. Norman Ikari, one of these incredible Warrior Scientists, and we thank all Veterans, whether scientist or not, for their service to our nation.

U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Alicia Gilbert, a member of the Airlift Control Flight coordinates and schedules military airlift operations at Bush Field, Augusta, Ga., July 19, in support of Global Medic 2010. Global Medic is a joint field training exercise for theater aeromedical evacuation system and ground medical components designed to replicate all aspects of combat medical service support.

Dr. Norman Ikari was born in Seattle to Japanese immigrant parents who came to America during the era of World War I.  Dr. Ikari assisted in the family business and enjoyed a happy American childhood. He recalled that his first brush with racial prejudice darkened his outlook; when his family moved to California, they were not allowed to move in to a house they were renting because none of the neighbors wanted Japanese people in the neighborhood.  He recalled it was the only time he ever saw his mother cry.  The Ikari family went on to be successful in their dry cleaning business, and young Norman enrolled pre-med at City College in Los Angeles.  Then came Pearl Harbor, and with it, came great fear and suspicion of Japanese people, even if they were American citizens like the Ikaris. 

Anti-Japanese sentiment, as seen in this propaganda poster, ran very high in the US at the time of WWII.

Dr. Ikari was drafted into the Army shortly after Pearl Harbor.  Because of his pre-med studies he was sent to Camp Grant, a Medical Replacement Training Center in Illinois. He had only been in training for a month when he learned that his family had been removed to a Japanese Internment Camp. He recalled a difficult trip to visit them when, even in the uniform of the US Army, he was constantly challenged and questioned on the way, and almost not allowed to enter the camp.  Nonetheless Dr. Ikari loved the USA and was proud to serve in the military.  In fact, after time spent at the Camp Grant Laboratory he decided he wanted to do something more than just “rattling test tubes.”

A rough barrack at Manzanar camp, where thousands of innocent Japanese Americans, thought to be a threat to the US, were forced to live during WWII.

When he heard the news that the Army had created the 442nd Regiment, a regiment composed entirely of Japanese American volunteers, he requested to join them immediately.  Of his decision, he said modestly: “Not that I was adventurous, but I would like to have something more going in my army life.”  He joined the regiment and was immersed in combat training, then sent to Italy in 1944.  He experienced combat in Italy until June of 1944, when a German machine gun ripped into his legs and shot straight through one of his femurs.  He was retrieved from an Italian hillside by a brave team of soldiers and subsequently spent a long period hospitalized with his wounds. 

Members of the 442nd taking cover from German Artillery during combat in Italy.

The 442nd Regiment, otherwise known as the “Go For Broke Regiment” were some of the fiercest fighters in the entire war, and became the most decorated regiment in all of US military history. Dr. Ikari received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his service.  His long period of recovery marked a turning point in his life: the beginning of his path towards becoming a research Microbiologist/Immunologist.  He first studied for a degree in Bacteriology at UCLA, but upheavals in his life lead him to move to Washington, D.C. He began working at the National Institutes of Health as an infectious disease researcher.  He received his PhD in1965 from Georgetown and went on to have a long career as a researcher and administrator at the NIH.  One of his published studies, “Bactericidal Antibody to Escherichia Coli in Germ-Free Mice” (1964),  is still a benchmark in the field.  He passed away at the age of 99 in 2018, after a long, courageous, and impactful life. Thank you, Dr. Ikari!

President Barack Obama and his guests applaud after signing S.1055, a bill to grant the Congressional Gold Medal, collectively, to the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, in recognition of their dedicated service during World War II, in the Oval Office, Oct. 5, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Sources and Further Reading:

American Veterans’ Center Tribute Video to the 442nd:

Dr. Norman Ikari Interview:

Dr. Norman Ikari Interview:

Asian American Heroism in WWII:

The Story of Two Japanese Americans who served in WWII, featuring Dr. Norman Ikari:

Dr. Ikari’s Article: