News for Nerds - October 7, 2011
Welcome back to more News for Nerds! This week we'll dive into the details of our accelerating universe, hunt down the mythical Yeti, and find out why makeup makes you look more competent. But first: how does having to pee affect your decision making?
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Depending on who you are, you may have been following one of several high-profile awards that were announced recently. Three American scientists won the Nobel Prize in physics this week for discovering that the universe is indeed expanding at an accelerating pace. It's a pretty big discovery; it means that the cosmos could ultimately be spread so thin as to be nearly devoid of light.
Or, maybe you were more focused on the Ig Nobel Prizes that were awarded last Friday.
Organized by a Harvard science humor magazine called the Annals of Improbable Research, the Ig Nobels recognize science achievements that, while often legitimate, tend to fall on the silly side of the spectrum.
For instance, this year's crop of winners included:
- The mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, won the Ig Nobel Peace Prize for publicly running over illegally parked cars with a tank;
- A wide array of doomsayers, including Pat Robertson and Harold Camping, shared the Ig Nobel Mathematics Prize for having incorrectly (and frequently) predicted the apocalypse in recent years;
- A team from Vienna and Nebraska won the Ig Nobel Physiology Prize for their paper, No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise.
- And my personal favorite, the Ig Nobel Medicine Prize, which went to two competing teams who studied how people's decision-making skills are affected by how badly they have to pee.
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Okay, let's back up for just a second. The universe is expanding at an accelerating pace?
Yes, it is. For many, many years it was believed that following the Big Bang, the universe expanded outward at a fast, but gradually slowing rate. Think of an exploding firecracker: there's the initial BOOM, matter is expelled, but after a few seconds the exploding matter slows down and is pulled back to Earth by gravity.
Well, that's a simplified analogy of the general idea held by most of the physics community until the late 1990s, when the team of Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess first presented evidence that the universe was actually speeding up. Since then, they've been working to measure and confirm their findings. On December 10, they'll receive the highest honor in physics for their work.
So if the universe is still expanding in a way that seems counterintuitive to what we know about the physical world, what is causing that phenomenon? Scientists tell us that the cause is something called dark energy, but nobody knows exactly what that is.
"It's an enigma, perhaps the greatest in physics today," according to the Nobel committee.
Whatever the cause of this dark energy, its effects paint a pretty different future of the universe than the one we've lived with for so long. For one thing, it means that a trillion years from now, galaxies will be spread apart from one another by greater distances than the current size of the entire universe. Light from one galaxy will not even be visible from another.
But as mind-boggling as that is, the future possibilities are even more so. One theory holds that the universe will ultimately stop expanding, reverse course, and collapse back in on itself. That scenario is known as 'the big crunch'. Another scenario holds that the expansion will continue to accelerate, leading planets and stars and entire galaxies to literally tear apart. That's called 'the big rip'.
Either scenario, or some other fate that we haven't even thought of yet, is still at least several billion years away... so don't cancel your winter vacation plans just yet.
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Back here on Earth, that warm-and-fuzzy feeling you're getting right now might be due to the glorious partnership between the U.S. and Russia on a high-profile scientific mission.
After decades of cold war (and post-cold war) animosity, the Americans and the Ruskies are burying the hatchet and teaming up in the name of... hunting down the abominable snowman?
Well, yes, actually. It appears that scientists from the rival nations (as well as from Canada, Sweden, Estonia, Mongolia, and China) will take part in an expedition and conference to find the elusive and mythical creature known as the Yeti.
Yeti sightings have long been common in the frigid rural landscape of Kemeroto, Russia. But, says Igor Burtsev from the Moscow-based International Center of Hominology, those sightings have increased three-fold in the last 20 years, leading Burtsev to believe that there may be as many as 20 Yeti living in Kemeroto and the nearby Altai region.
Other evidence includes twig huts, twisted branches and strange footprints up to 14 inches in size.
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And finally, did you see the story this week about how not wearing makeup makes women seem less likeable and less competent?
The study comes from an assistant clinical professor at Harvard -- although it should be pointed out very clearly that it was financed by Proctor & Gamble, makers of Cover Girl and Max Factor.
Researchers showed participants four sets of photos of 25 women. In one set, the women wore no makeup. In another, they wore a 'natural-looking' makeup. In the third, they sported 'professional' makeup. And in the final set of photos, they appeared 'glamorous', whatever that means.
The participants were shown the photos for 250 milliseconds and then asked to rate the women's attractiveness, competence, likeability, and trust. The photo set depicting women sans makeup scored the lowest across the board.
So take from that what you will, but if there's a headline to take away from this story, it's probably this: Company That is in the Business of Selling Makeup Says You Should Wear More Makeup.
And that's probably about all that you should take away from this story. Many people do still prefer the natural look, ladies. If wearing lots of makeup made you sexy, then that would theoretically make the Joker the hottest person on the planet, right?
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That's all for now! I'll be back with more News for Nerds next week, but be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter, and to sign up for the free e-Newsletter so that you can properly get your nerd on every single month!