x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The down-to-earth insights that drive discovery

Science columnist Robert Matthews writes about a quirky new book that comes to some down-to-earth conclusions about the human condition, touching on everything from tipping to helping people in distress.

Sir Isaac Newton uses a prism to refract light into a multi-coloured spectrum in a drawing from the late 1600's.
Sir Isaac Newton uses a prism to refract light into a multi-coloured spectrum in a drawing from the late 1600's.

Later this month, scientists will release the first subatomic particles into the 27km-long Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, in preparation for experiments that will probe conditions last seen just after the birth of the cosmos 14 billion years ago. As scientific experiments go, these are pretty impressive - and, with the LHC costing $5 billion (Dh16.4billion) to build, pretty expensive. Yet the results are likely to little impact on our everyday lives. Theoretical physicists may well be agog at the prospect of getting evidence for such esoterica as supersymmetry and the Higgs particle. The rest of us could be forgiven for wondering whether all that money might not have been put to better use. Certainly experiments don't have to be expensive to have big payoffs. Isaac Newton discovered the nature of light using just a glass prism and a shuttered window. Gregor Mendel revealed the existence of genes using garden plants. Einstein didn't even bother with apparatus: he just dreamed up "thought experiments" that led him to his theory of relativity. But as science writer Reto Schneider shows in The Mad Science Book, his brilliantly entertaining survey of bizarre experiments published this week, some of the most valuable insights into how the world works have come from scientists researching far more down-to-earth matters. Take the question of why some people stop to help someone in trouble, while others will simply walk past. In 1970, the American sociologist Daniel Batson decided to investigate how students at a religious seminary in Princeton behaved when faced with someone needing help. Over the course of three days, Batson sent dozens of unwitting students from one campus department to another via an alleyway where a "victim" was slumped in a doorway. Some of the students were told to prepare a talk on career prospects, which they would deliver at the other department, while others had to speak about the famous story of the Good Samaritan, who helps someone he meets on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. Some students were also told they had little time to get to the other department, and some that there was no hurry at all. Batson then noted which of the students offered to help the victim they encountered en route. The results were surprising: only one factor seemed to influence whether a student stopped: just how pushed for time they were. Those told they had plenty of time were six times more likely to offer help than those in a hurry. The level of personal religious conviction made no significant difference - nor the fact that some of the students had supposedly been focusing on the parable of the Good Samaritan in preparation for their talk. Such findings put a new slant on the oft-lamented failure of people today to help those in trouble. Perhaps it's not that we've all grown more hard-hearted - but simply that we live more hurried lives. Schneider also describes experiments with an everyday applicability most scientists can only dream of. They include a study by researchers at the University of Mississippi into ways of boosting the size of tips offered to waitresses. The researchers found that briefly touching customers on the shoulder when presenting them with the change from the bill boosted the size of tips by an average of 18 per cent, while a fleeting touch on the hand made the tips zoom by 37 per cent. According to Schneider, other studies have uncovered a host of further strategies for boosting tips, such as introducing yourself by your first name, squatting down when taking orders and writing "Thanks!" or a smiley face on the bill. Perhaps the most surprising discovery is the impact of the slightest bit of humour on tipping rates. In one study, customers were given copies of the following with their bill: "An Eskimo had been waiting for his girlfriend in front of a movie theatre for a long time, and it was getting colder and colder. After a while, shivering with cold and rather infuriated, he opened his coat and drew out a thermometer. He then said loudly, 'If she's not here at minus 10, I'm going". This dismal joke garnered serving staff an extra 50 per cent in tips. But forget tipping rates, why people help others, or the existence of supersymmetry. What everyone really wants from scientists is some insight into the best ways of attracting the opposite sex. Schneider obliges with an account of an in-depth study of the most effective chat-up lines. He describes how Professor Michael Cunningham of the University of Louisville, Kentucky identified 100 conversational gambits, and divided them into three categories: direct, innocuous and cute/flippant. For example, a direct opening line would be "I feel a little embarrassed about this, but I'd like to meet you", while an innocuous one is something like "What do you think of the band?". A cute/flippant line, in contrast, would be along the lines of "You remind me of someone I used to date". The findings are good news for women who hate being on the receiving end of cheesy chat-up lines: in 80 per cent of encounters studied, such gambits failed to get a friendly response. Straightforward introductions succeeded around 50 per cent of the time, while the line about being "a little embarrassed" worked in over 80 per cent of the encounters. There was one finding that will come as a surprise to noone, however. When the experiment was reversed, so that women were approaching men, it didn't matter a jot what type of chat-up line the women used: they got a positive response from men at least 80 per cent of the time. It seems that when it comes to how men react to women, science can't tell us anything we don't already know. Robert Matthews is a Visiting Reader in Science at Aston University, Birmingham, England www.robertmatthews.org