The Morning File: Let the Ig Nobels light up your life


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There's nothing The Morning File likes better than smart people being silly -- we're looking forward someday to seeing what we hear is a great Marilyn Monroe impression by Stephen Hawking -- and that's why we're happy once more to chronicle the Ig Nobel Prizes.

The Ig Nobels are awarded each year in Cambridge, Mass., by the folks responsible for a publication called the Annals of Improbable Science. As a precursor to the Nobel Prizes, the Ig Nobels honor -- or dishonor, though with humor -- some of the more ridiculous research of the scientific community.

An Ig Nobel Prize is just the kind that The Morning File would hope to win someday, if only we did silly research instead of just silly writing. Lucky for us, there are at least others to tell you about.

Ponytails: the last frontier

We've always been a fan of ponytails -- whether on girls, women, artistic men, ponies, anyone -- so we were happy to see a group of American and British researchers take home the physics Ig Nobel for calculating the forces involved in hair movement in a human ponytail. Among the published work for which they were recognized was "Shape of a Ponytail and the Statistical Physics of Hair Fiber Bundles."

We looked up that paper in the journal Physical Review Letters, and -- after reading an amazing number of mathematical computations related to the hairs involved in a ponytail -- we have to say, frankly, we have no better understanding of how a ponytail works than we did before. We're also not sure, frankly, that we care.

In a separate Journal of Applied Mathematics paper, "Ponytail Motion," by co-honoree Joseph Keller, he noted the ponytail of a jogger is both a "rigid pendulum" and "flexible string."

"It is hanging from a support which is moving up and down periodically, and we solve the linear equation for small lateral oscillation," Mr. Keller summarized. And, of course, the world is all the better for it -- or at least for those who wear ponytails.

Coffee: the pain when it rains

The fluid dynamics prize of the Ig Nobels, which is not a category we're aware of the real Nobel Prizes recognizing, went to a pair of professors who wrote the research paper, "Walking With Coffee: Why Does It Spill?" Rouslan Krechetnikov and Hans Mayer were very interested, like many who have suffered a burn or stain, in the liquid-sloshing process that accompanies a mobile coffee-drinker.

The two of them, from the University of California Santa Barbara, got the idea for their research, in fact, while watching other people during a coffee break at a conference in 2011. Somehow, they determined walking speed, mental focus and noise were all factors in coffee spills.

Mr. Krechetnikov told The Associated Press that such sloshing could be reduced if only coffee cups were designed with "a series of annular ring baffles around the inner wall of the container to achieve sloshing suppression." No one has done that, and he acknowledges that it is impractical.

Or people could try to have less coffee in their cups before walking around with them. Maybe that's impractical too, somehow.

Belle-lettres from the feds

Among the other awards were a psychology prize for a study of how leaning to the left while looking at the Eiffel Tower can make it seem smaller; a peace prize for a Russian company that converted old ammunition into diamonds; the neuroscience prize recognizing research that showed brain activity occurs in a dead salmon; and the anatomy prize to those who discovered chimpanzees can recognize one another from photographs of their rear ends.

The literature prize, meanwhile, went to writers you wouldn't typically look for in your Barnes & Noble. They'd be from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which produced a report in May called "Actions Needed to Evaluate the Impact of Efforts to Estimate Costs of Reports and Studies."

Or, as the Ig Nobel committee called it, it was a government report "about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports."

And here's one of the least surprising things: Of all the winners, the government was among the few not to send anyone to receive its prize Thursday night. Ah, some people just don't have a sense of humor.

intelligencer

Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.


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