Monday, July 30, 2012

Who Will Win the Ig Nobel Prize?

Every year, a deserving physicist (or two or three) earns a free trip to Stockholm, Sweden to receive his or her Nobel Prize for groundbreaking research. Despite the prestige of the Nobel Prize, physicists are willing to shell out their own money to personally accept a lesser-known prize here in the U.S.

The Ig Nobel Prize Committee recognizes research that "makes people laugh and then think." Winners have traveled from across the globe to accept their prizes for often ridiculous, seemingly inconsequential research. Past winners have created a wasabi-spraying alarm clock, examined the physics of hula-hooping, and used magnets to levitate a frog.

Like the Nobel Prizes, the Ig Nobel Prizes award "excellence" in several categories, including physics. The award ceremony is on September 20th, and tickets go on sale this Wednesday, August 1st. For our impatient readers, we've wrangled some of our best bets for this year's Ig Nobel Prize in physics in an attractive list-based format.

Ponytail Physics

How do you quantify the shape of a ponytail? Physicist Raymond Goldstein of Cambridge University and his colleagues developed a formula for determining the "Rapunzel number" of ponytails. Combining the effects of elasticity, gravity and a curling factor, the scientists developed a way to characterize ponytail shape. Stylists around the world are now anxiously awaiting a rigid, mathematical hairstyle selection system to avoid customers' vague demands.

What Seems to be the Problem, Officer?

Perhaps we're biased, but we think Dmitri Krioukov's tale of using elementary physics to avoid paying a traffic fine is definitely Ig Nobel material. In a paper published on the arXiv, Krioukov showed how an officer could mistakenly think he ran a stop sign. Physics proved victorious when Krioukov argued his case in court, and the judge struck down the fine. Although his physics argument wasn't flawless (and assumed that a Toyota Yaris sustained the acceleration of a dragster), we applaud Krioukov's ingenuity and boldness. Krioukov even updated his article to address some of the potential faults readers found with his argument after the story broke on Physics Central.

Coffee Spills No More

Coffee stains have ruined many a morning, so physicists decided to save us from the perennial problem of coffee spills. Apparently, the structure of coffee mugs can produce some fascinating fluid dynamics when coupled with the mechanics of walking, leading to liquid letdowns. To avoid coffee spills, the researchers suggested new coffee mug designs and some practical advice: avoid quick starts and coffee mug relay races.

Wine Swirling

Coffee drinkers avoid sloshing at all costs, but wine enthusiasts tend to prefer some swirling before imbibing. Now physicists have started to reveal why wine swirling may enhance the flavor of wine, at least for those with the sophisticated palettes required for subtle flavor detection. Wine swirling creates standing waves in wine glasses, leading to better oxygenation and mixing; this mixing leads to an enhanced aroma and taste, according to the researchers. They even looked at a variety of parameters, such as glass size and rotational speed, to move toward a more perfect swirl.

We'll see if one of our choices made the final cut on September 20th. If you can't make it out to Harvard for the ceremony, you can watch it live online. Also, our intrepid reporter Quantum will likely be there to report all of the details.

Top image of Andre Geim's levitating frog, which garnered him an Ig Nobel Prize in 2000. He won an actual Nobel Prize in 2010 for his work on graphene. Image Courtesy Radboud University. Ponytail image and coffee image courtesy of Nicki Varkevisser and Tamorlan, respectively.

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6 comments:

  1. Oslo, Norway? You mean Stockholm, Sweden right? Oslo hands out the peace price and that's a joke...

    The Nobel Prize in Physics is awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, Sweden.

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  2. Thanks for pointing out my mistake, Richard. I've corrected the post to reflect the location for the physics prize instead of the peace prize.

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  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  4. BTW, I believe Geim is the only person ever to have one both a Nobel and an Ig Nobel.

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  5. I think the coffee takes it, but the traffic ticket is a very close second.

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  6. Now I know why I am unable to take the coffee from the kitchen to my office without spilling...

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