Ponytail Physics, Zombie Salmon And How Not To Spill Your Coffee
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
At a prestigious gala in Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre, University at Cambridge physics professor Raymond Goldstein was awarded an Ig Nobel prize for his work that explains the behavior and physical properties of a human ponytail, proving that even the scientific community relishes the chance to let its hair down.
The Ig Nobel Awards were started by the satirical magazine the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) in 1991 and are intended to lampoon the far more serious Nobel Awards. The stated purpose of the awards is to “first make people laugh, and then make them think.”
In his research sponsored by Unilever, Goldstein employed 3-D imaging technology and complex mathematical models to understand how a bundle of hair reacts to a variety of forces.
“We found that the bundle of hair collectively behaved like a simple spring, where the force necessary to compress it was proportional to the extent to which you compressed it,” he told The Guardian. “That simple law is one of the things that would apply to a large number of systems.”
Another notable Ig Nobel was awarded to University of California at Santa Cruz professor Craig Bennett who led a team of colleagues in scanning the brains of dead salmon. After scanning a pumpkin and a Cornish game hen, Bennett trained his state-of-the-art magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner on the soon-to-be-sushi in an attempt to construct a comprehensive picture of the fish’s brain. The UC Santa Cruz team was surprised to see the scanner pick up some brain activity.
While Bennett’s study did not prove the existence of zombie salmon, it did show that neurologists can become victims of their own equipment and methods if they are not used properly.
“If you have a 1% chance of hitting a bull’s-eye when playing darts and you throw one dart, then you have a 1% chance of hitting the target,” Bennett told the Guardian. “If you have 30,000 darts then, well, let’s just say that you are probably going to hit the target a few times. The same is true in neuroimaging.”
“The more chances you have to find a result, the more likely you are to find one, even by chance,” he added. “We, as a scientific field, have accepted statistical methods to correct for this, but not all scientists use these methods in their neuroimaging analysis.”
Other prize winners included the Russian company SKN for turning old ammunition into diamonds, Rouslan Krechetnikov for his work on coffee sloshing, and Emmanuel Ben-Soussan for his pointers on how doctors performing a colonoscopy can avoid exploding their patients.
The Ig Nobel for literature went to US Government General Accountability Office for issuing a report about reports about reports that gives advice on how to prepare a report about the report about reports about reports, making this story a report about a report about the report about reports about reports.
Marc Abrahams, the editor at AIR, closed the awards show by saying, “If you didn’t win an Ig Nobel prize tonight – and especially if you did – better luck next year.”