One of the better gifts in Santa's bag is the year-end edition of the British Medical Journal, which brightens the cold days of late December with research reports that are actually fun to read. Take the report entitled "Harry Potter Casts a Spell on Accident Prone Children." The authors note that kid crazes, such as skating and scootering, often lead to emergency room visits. But traumatic injury as a result of widespread Harry Potter reading would presumably be rare, they say, "given the lack of horizontal velocity, height, wheels, or sharp edges associated with this particular craze."
So they tracked ER visits on weekends after the release of the past two Harry Potter books and found a "significant fall," but only of the kind in which no one gets hurt. Hospital trips were halved when kids were hunkered down with Harry. The authors muse: "It may therefore be hypothesized that there is a place for a committee of safety conscious, talented writers who could produce high quality books for the purpose of injury prevention." The Muggles who wrote the report point out, however, that the flip side could be "an unpredictable increase in childhood obesity, rickets, and loss of cardiovascular fitness."
Another study of particular interest during the celebratory season was on the "Shape of Glass and Amount of Alcohol Poured." Seems that our brains confuse height with volume--even experienced bartenders attempting to pour a standard shot misoverestimate and actually deliver about 20 percent more alcohol into a short, wide glass than into a tall, thin one. The scientists recommend going with highball glasses to avoid overpouring or to use "glasses on which the alcohol level is marked." Now, I can't see getting a special pair of glasses to wear just for pouring drinks, but I don't entertain that much. [Editors' note: We agree--he barely entertains us at all.]
Perhaps the most important research turned up in "The Case of the Disappearing Teaspoons: Longitudinal Cohort Study of the Displacement of Teaspoons in an Australian Research Institute." Noting that lounges at their institute always seemed to be short on teaspoons, which led to an inability to use sugar or instant coffee efficiently, which in turn must have had a negative effect on the quality of work, the researchers attempted to answer the question "Where have all the bloody teaspoons gone?"
The investigators planted 70 "discreetly numbered" teaspoons in the kitchen and did a weekly census. After five months, 80 percent of the teaspoons were gone, with teaspoons in common areas having a half-life of a mere 42 days. The authors propose three explanations. Quoting the classic 1968 Science article "The Tragedy of the Commons," which explains how individual overuse can destroy a community asset, they note that people may actually have taken the spoons. They also suggest the possibility of a distant planet populated by spoon life-forms, to which the spoons somehow migrated. Finally, they consider the theory of counterphenomenological resistentialism--"the belief that inanimate objects have a natural antipathy towards humans, and therefore it is not people who control things but things that increasingly control people." In other words, if you still think you're running the show, well, where have all the bloody teaspoons gone?
The BMJ was joined in spreading holiday cheer by Judge John Jones. On December 20 he issued his decision in the Dover, Pa., intelligent design trial that has been frequently mentioned on this page. The decision, available on the Web, is an instant classic of science writing, not to mention jurisprudence. In addition to delineating why untestable intelligent design is equivalent to the spoon-space-travel hypothesis above, Judge Jones harangued the school board for its "breathtaking inanity" in requiring an antievolution, pro-ID statement to be read in public school science classes. Local authorities are now looking into perjury charges against pro-ID board members who apparently lied in depositions and on the witness stand. Not very intelligent.
This article was originally published with the title Annual Rapport.