Seeing your scientific discipline with laymen’s eyes

I felt silly adding “Brainy” — but there had been a row between Pop and him, and years earlier my best teacher had said, “Never neglect the so-called ‘trivial’ roots of an equation,” and had pointed out that two Nobel prizes had derived from “trivial” roots.
“The Number of the Beast” by Robert A. Heinlein

Yesterday I stumbled upon a tweet by a major newspaper (that actually deserves this name) in which the author mentioned his or her astonished/outraged/amusement regarding a study done by two researchers. Mayer and Krechetnikov (2012) have published a paper asking the question: “Walking with coffee: Why does it spill?”

I think this astonished-outraged-amusement of the journalist shows a lot. Especially if you are not a physicist (or where-ever mechanical engineers belong to):

  1. Even as a scientist it is hard to understand the work of other scientists. Frankly, I do not understand the paper — well, I understand what was the question, and I think some of the results, and perhaps the methods of intervention to prevent spilling. But that’s it. I can’t even tell whether it was an April’s fool joke or real (I think — and hope — the later).
  2. It is very hard to distinguish cleverly done research with common daily situations from a joke. Personally, I hope they get the Ig Nobel Prize for this — because they fulfill the purpose of “first make people laugh, and then make them think” (like the other non-satirical winners). If not a joke, taking a daily … an imperceptible daily situation and unleashing a physical perspective on it is extremely clever.
  3. Publishing a research paper in a scientific journal — even if it deals with a daily phenomenon — is not the same as giving concrete advice to practice. Not only does the practice usually not get to know of the research (or can afford to access the publications due the price the publishers demand), it is damn hard to understand.
  4. Science is great! This paper gets a place in my mind right next to two Ig Nobel Prize winners: “Ovulatory cycle effects on tip earnings by lap dancers: economic evidence for human estrus?” by Miller, Tybur, and Jordan (2007) and “Fellatio by Fruit Bats Prolongs Copulation Time” by Tan et al. (2008).

In short it provided me with a glimpse of what other disciplines might see when they look at (some parts) of psychology — a very entertaining glimpse. 🙂

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