Lab+Life Scientist Nov 2014

Page 16


Turn your smartphone into a cosmic ray detector Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) have developed a smartphone app that can turn Android phones into detectors to capture the light particles created when cosmic rays crash into Earth’s

2014 Ig Nobel Prize Winners announced

atmosphere. The project was led by Justin Vandenbroucke, a UW-Madison assistant professor of physics and researcher at the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC). Cosmic rays are energetic subatomic particles, believed to be created in cosmic accelerators like black holes and exploding stars. When the particles crash into the Earth’s atmosphere, they create showers of secondary particles called muons. When a muon strikes the semiconductor that underpins a

The 2014 Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded on 18 September at the 24th First

smartphone camera, it liberates an electric charge and creates a signature in

Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, held at Harvard University’s Sanders

pixels that can be logged, stored and analysed.

Theatre. Described by the journal Nature as “arguably the highlight of the scientific calendar”, the awards for improbable research honour scientific achievements that first make people laugh, then make them think. This year’s Physics Prize was awarded to researchers from Kitasato University, Japan. The team measured the amount of friction between a shoe and a banana skin, and between a banana skin and the floor, when a person steps on a banana skin that’s on the floor. The Neuroscience Prize was meanwhile awarded to a Chinese-Canadian collaboration who attempted to understand what happens in the brains of people who see the face of Jesus in a piece of toast. The researchers © McCarthy

suggest that “human face processing has a strong top-down ©

component whereby sensory input with even the slightest suggestion of a face can result in the interpretation of a face”. The winners of the Psychology Prize amassed evidence that people who habitually stay up late are, on average, more self-admiring, manipulative and psychopathic than people who habitually arise early in the morning. The team included Australian Peter K Jonason, from the University of Western Sydney. The Public Health Prize winners investigated whether it is mentally hazardous for

The smartphone project, known as DECO (Distributed Electronic

a human being to own a cat. And still on the topic of animals, the Arctic Science Prize

Cosmic-ray Observatory), includes a data logger and the DECO app. After

winners tested how reindeer react to seeing humans who are disguised as polar bears.

downloading the app, the user should cover their phone’s camera lens with

Continuing the animal theme, the winners of the Biology Prize carefully

duct tape. The phone can then be placed screen-up just about anywhere -

documented that when dogs defecate and urinate, they prefer to align their body axis

even in a desk drawer, as muons can penetrate matter much like X-rays.

with Earth’s north-south geomagnetic field lines. They weren’t the only team to deal

Left running, an idle phone can be set to record an image every couple

in defecation - Spanish researchers won the Nutrition Prize after trawling through

of seconds. It will then analyse the image and, if enough pixels light up,

baby faeces to obtain bacteria that could both ferment sausages and also pass through

it gets recorded as a particle event. Particle tracks from both cosmic rays

the stomach to colonise the gut.

and radioactivity in the environment can be recorded, and events may

In an unusual use of a scientific instrument, Italian researchers won the Art

sometimes be matched to cosmic phenomena detected by more sophisticated

Prize for measuring the relative pain people suffer while looking at an ugly painting,

observatories. The data logger meanwhile routes event information - time,

rather than a pretty painting, while being shot in the hand by a powerful laser beam.

location and observations - to a central database.

Italy additionally received the Economics Prize, for its National Institute of Statistics

Vandenbroucke said the idea behind the pocket cosmic ray detector

increasing the official size of its national economy by including revenues from

is primarily educational. His WIPAC group, with grant support from the

unlawful financial transactions between willing participants, including prostitution,

national program QuarkNet, plans to engage high-school teachers to develop

drug sales and smuggling.

curricular materials around the use of the detector.

Finally, the Medicine Prize was awarded to a US-Indian collaboration which

“It would be great to get students and the public interested in gathering

treated uncontrollable nosebleeds by packing the nasal passages with strips of cured

data and understanding the particles around them; things they ordinarily

pork. The researchers claimed their “nasal tampon … successfully stopped nasal

don’t get a chance to see,” Vandenbroucke said. He believes that if enough

haemorrhage promptly, effectively, and without sequelae”.

people use their old smartphones to capture muons, the project could one

For more information about this year’s awards, visit http://www.improbable. com/ig/2014/.

16 | LAB+LIFE SCIENTIST - November 2014

day evolve into a meaningful citizen science initiative. To download the data logger and app, visit |