Archive for 'Ig Nobel'

Some physics of trick roping

Saturday, March 8th, 2014

Trick roping and physics are revealed as being more or less the same thing (One of the revealers won an Ig Nobel Prize several years ago for revealing the reason spaghetti breaks into interesting pieces). James Morgan reports for BBC News:

By studying trick roping as a science, a French physicist has taught himself to lasso like a rodeo veteran. Anyone can teach themselves the famous “flat loop” by following some basic formulae, says Dr Pierre-Thomas Brun, of EPFL in Switzerland. He showed off his ‘cowboy physics’ skills at the American Physical Society meeting in Denver….

But while these loops spellbind our imagination, they also harbour useful mathematical secrets. ”Elastic threads are everywhere in our daily lives – from hair and textile yarns to DNA and undersea broadband cables. Even the honey you pour on your toast,” said Dr Brun who worked on the research with his colleagues, Dr Basile Audoly and Dr Neil Ribe….

That Basile Audoly is the same Basile Audoly who shared the 2006 Ig Nobel Prize for physics with his colleague Sebastien Neukirch of the Université Pierre et Marie Curie,  Paris. They were honored  for their insights into why, when you bend dry spaghetti, it often breaks into more than two pieces. [REFERENCE: "Fragmentation of Rods by Cascading Cracks: Why Spaghetti Does Not Break in Half," Basile Audoly and Sebastien Neukirch, Physical Review Letters, vol. 95, no. 9, August 26, 2005, pp. 95505-1 to 95505-1.]

Pierre-Thomas Brun and Basile Audoly have a lasso-physics paper in prep. Meanwhile, the trick-roping paper that Brun presented at the American Physical Society Meeting in Denver is

The mechanics of trick roping.” The abstract explains:

“Trick roping evolved from humble origins as a cattle-catching tool into a sport that delights audiences the world over with its complex patterns or ‘tricks,’ such as the Merry-Go-Round , the Wedding-Ring, the Spoke-Jumping, the Texas Skip… Its implement is the lasso, a length of rope with a small loop (‘honda‘) at one end through which the other end is passed to form a large loop. Here, we study the physics of the simplest rope trick, the Flat Loop, in which the motion of the lasso is forced by a uniform circular motion of the cowboy’s/cowgirl’s hand in a horizontal plane. To avoid accumulating twist in the rope, the cowboy/cowgirl rolls it between his/her thumb and forefinger while spinning it. The configuration of the rope is stationary in a reference frame that rotates with the hand. Exploiting this fact we derive a dynamical ‘string’ model in which line tension is balanced by the centrifugal force and the rope’s weight. Using a numerical continuation method, we calculate the steady shapes of a lasso with a fixed honda, examine their stability, and determine a bifurcation diagram exhibiting coat-hanger shapes and whirling modes in addition to  at loops. We then extend the model to a honda with finite sliding friction by using matched asymptotic expansions to determine the structure of the boundary layer where bending forces are significant, thereby obtaining a macroscopic criterion for frictional sliding of the honda. We compare our theoretical results with high-speed videos of a professional trick roper and experiments performed using a laboratory ‘robo-cowboy.’ Finally, we conclude with a practical guidance on how to spin a lasso in the air based on the results of our analysis.”

(Thanks to investigator Neil Judell for bringing this to our attention.)

BONUS:  Some physics of some toys, as described at that same physics meeting:

Snap, crack and pop: What elastic instabilities in toys can teach us,” Dominic Vella [University of Oxford], abstract for an Invited Paper for the March 2014 Meeting of the American Physical Society, The author writes:

“The mechanism of many modern toys rely on some form or other of elastic instability, from the locomotion of the ‘Hexbug nano‘ to the snapping of a ‘Hopper popper.’ In this talk I will discuss some fundamental mechanical problems that are inspired by the mechanism of such toys. A particular focus will be on the ‘snap’ and ‘pop’ phases of the Hopper popper but I will also discuss the ‘crack’ of a whip and other examples of dynamic elastic instabilities.”

Gibberish scholarship happily fills the cracks, again

Saturday, March 1st, 2014

Comes another reminder that some scholarly journals, like some people, are less careful than others. [Another way to put this: if the ONLY thing you know about a report is that it was published in "a scholarly journal", then you know almost nothing about it.] Richard van Noorden reports, in Nature:

The publishers Springer and IEEE are removing more than 120 papers from their subscription services after a French researcher discovered that the works were computer-generated nonsense.

Over the past two years, computer scientist Cyril Labbé of Joseph Fourier University in Grenoble, France, has catalogued computer-generated papers that made it into more than 30 published conference proceedings between 2008 and 2013. Sixteen appeared in publications by Springer, which is headquartered in Heidelberg, Germany, and more than 100 were published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), based in New York. Both publishers, which were privately informed by Labbé, say that they are now removing the papers….

There is a long history of journalists and researchers getting spoof papers accepted in conferences or by journals to reveal weaknesses in academic quality controls — from a fake paper published by physicist Alan Sokal of New York University in the journal Social Text in 1996, to a sting operation by US reporter John Bohannon published in Science in 2013, in which he got more than 150 open-access journals to accept a deliberately flawed study for publication.

The Sokal hoax resulted, among other things, in the awarding of the 1996 Ig Nobel Prize for literature to the editors of the journal Social Text, for eagerly publishing research that they could not understand, that the author said was meaningless, and which claimed that reality does not exist. [REFERENCE: The paper was "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity," Alan Sokal, "Social Text," Spring/Summer 1996, pp. 217-252.]

Ig Nobel-winning scratch ‘n sniff, and nuclear power plant safety

Friday, February 28th, 2014

In Ig Nobel Prize-winning invention is now being used, insistently, to help protect nuclear power plants.

The 1993 Ig Nobel Prize for chemistry was awarded to James Campbell and Gaines Campbell of Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, dedicated deliverers of fragrance, for inventing scent strips [also known as "scratch 'n sniff" strips], the odious method by which perfume is applied to magazine pages.

pilgrimpowerplantToday, February 28, 2014, Erin Ailworth reports in the Boston Globe:

Sniffing out trouble at US nuclear plants

A Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station control room operator didn’t pass the smell test last year. The operator couldn’t even get one.

The exam is regularly given to Pilgrim employees — via scratch-and-sniff cards — to make sure they can smell problems such as natural gas leaks, smoking equipment, or fire. But in January 2012, one worker reported that a contract medical assistant hadn’t administered the test during a routine physical. The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission investigated. Its findings, released Wednesday, opened a window on the olfactory rules governing the nation’s nuclear facilities….


World Sword Swallower’s Day, created by an Ig Nobel Prize winner

Saturday, February 22nd, 2014

Today, February 22, is International Sword Swallowers Day, created by sword swallower — and Ig Nobel Prize winner — Dan Meyer, who also created the organization Sword Swallowers Association International, of which he serves as president. Dan, an American, together with Dr. Brian Witcombe, a Briton, shared the 2007 Ig Nobel Prize for medicine, for their penetrating medical report “Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects” [published in the British Medical Journal, December 23, 2006, vol. 333, pp. 1285-7]. This video documents the acceptance speech the pair delivered at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard in 2007:

Huffington Post reports about Dan and the day:

For instance, in 1868, a sword swallower assisted Dr. Adolf Kussmaul in Freiburg, Germany, in developing the first rigid endoscopy. Another sword swallower underwent the first esophageal electrocardiogram in Wales in 1906.

In both cases, the researchers got the credit, but the sword swallowers’ names disappeared down the esophagus of time, and Meyer just doesn’t think that’s right.”Sword swallowers go unrecognized, but their physical and mental abilities to shut off bodily reflexes is very helpful to scientists studying the inner workings of the body,” he told HuffPost in 2012.

To emphasize that point, Meyer scheduled World Sword Swallowers Day in February, which is also National Swallowing Disorders Month.

(Thanks to investigator Neil Judell for bringing this to our attention.)

The Blonsky centrifugal birthing device in Dublin

Friday, February 21st, 2014

The Science Gallery in Dublin has built a full-scale model of the Ig Nobel Prize-winning Blonsky birthing device, and placed it next to the window where passersby can admire and wonder at it:


This is part of the Science Gallery’s gala “Fail Better” exhibition, which runs from February 2 through April 27, 2014. The gallery explains:

The goal of FAIL BETTER is to open up a public conversation about failure, particularly the instructive role of failure, as it relates to very different areas of human endeavour. Rather than simply celebrating failure, which can come at great human, environmental and economic cost, we want to open up a debate on the role of failure in stimulating creativity: in learning, in science, engineering and design.

The gallery also produced this lovely drawing, based on the original engineering drawings that are part of the Blonskys’ 1965 patent:


I wrote up a short description of the device and its background, placing it in the context of the exhibit:

In 1965, George and Charlotte Blonsky, a married couple living in New York City, were granted US patent #3216423 for an “Apparatus for Facilitating the Birth of a Child by Centrifugal Force”. When a woman is ready to deliver her child, she lies on her back on a circular table. She is  strapped down. The table is then rotated at high speed. The baby comes flying out. This is intended to “assist the under-equipped woman by creating a gentle, evenly distributed, properly directed, precision-controlled force, that acts in unison with and supplements her own efforts”.

Though meticulously and lovingly engineered with safety features to protect both mother and child, the device never made it into general use. Few people other than the Blonskys perceived the need for it. Their method stands rather outside most birthing traditions. Their mechanism is expensive and complex. Also, the tiny net designed to catch the child may be inadequate to the task….

Patrick Freyne of the Irish Times visited the exhibition and wrote about his experience.

If you attended the most recent (2013) Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at Harvard University, in the US, you saw the premiere of the opera we wrote and produced about the Blonskys and their invention. This video shows the entire ceremony, including all four acts of the opera:

BONUS [February 26, 2014]: An essay in Forbes magazine: “Why The Road To Success Is Paved With Failure“, partly about Ig Nobel Prize winner Andre Geim.

BONUS [March 6, 2014 — thanks to Ig Nobel winner Brad Bushman for bringing this to our attention.]: A report about the Blonsky exhibit, on PRI’s The World. And here’s video of the FAIL BETTER exhibition, including a look at the model of the Blonsky device: