Archive for 'Improbable Investigators'

Sad news: Roy Glauber, paper airplane sweeper and physicist of light, is gone

Thursday, December 27th, 2018

We have just heard the sad news that Roy Glauber died. Roy was our friend, and for more than 20 years he was a sweepingly charismatic part of the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony—he was “The Keeper of the Broom,” who almost every year would sweep paper airplanes from the stage during the Ig Nobel ceremony, where he was beloved for his intellect, charm, and tidyness, and for his deadpan comic timing.

Roy was also a physicist of some note. He was one of the atomic pioneers at Los Alamos, when he was still a college student, then later became a Harvard physics professor, and in 2005 was awarded a Nobel Prize in physics. You might want to read our little tribute to Roy on the announcement, in 2005, that he was being awarded a Nobel Prize “for his contribution to the quantum theory of optical coherence.” Roy discovered more about light—what light is, and how it behaves—than almost all the rest of humanity combined had managed to do.

(I was tickled when Roy phoned me shortly after his return home from the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm. He said, with great Glauberian joy, that all the reporters there had showed more interest in him than in any of the other new Nobel laureates. Then Roy paused. A long pause. “But all they wanted to ask about,” he said, with a probably unique blend of pride, bitterness, and amusement, “was that damn broom and the paper airplanes.”)

Roy and his broom, illuminated by human spotlights, at the 2012 ceremony.

Since then, Roy most years did double duty at the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony—physically presenting Ig Nobel prizes to some of the new winners, and yes, continuing to sweep paper planes. Roy also had roles (generally non-singing) in most of the Ig Nobel operas.

Roy with soprano Maria Ferrante, in the opera that was part of the 2012 ceremony. (You can watch video of that moment.)

We will miss Roy very much. And we will continue to treasure the now-famous broom that he entrusted to us (an action Roy took with glee many years ago, so that he, himself, would not have to bother to remember to bring it the ceremony every year).

Here are a few action photos of Roy at various Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies.

Roy presenting an Ig Nobel Prize to the inventors of the wasabi-fume fire alarm, in 2011.


Roy and fellow Nobel laureate Craig Mello, at the 2007 ceremony, eating a specially-flavored ice cream created by Toscanini’s Ice Cream to honor the Ig Nobel Prize-winning chemist who invented a way to extract vanillin from cow dung.


Roy at a house party given by friends in 2005, shortly after the announcement that Roy was being awarded a Nobel Prize in physics. The tall fellow on the right is Sheldon Glashow, with whom Roy shared an office for many years, patiently awaiting the era when not just one of them would have a Nobel Prize.


Roy presenting an Ig Nobel prize, at the 2006 ceremony, to the scientists who explained why when you bend a a strand of dried spaghetti it almost always breaks into more than two pieces.


Roy at the 2006 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony at the moment when fifteen women collected him as their shared prize in that year’s Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest.


Left to right in the front row: Nobel laureates Eric Maskin, Rich Roberts, Dudley Herschbach, and Roy pay tribute to the scientists who investigated whether things look different when you bend over and view them between your legs. This was at the 2016 ceremony. Roy, maybe not quite as limber at age 91 as in his youth, still insisted on contributing his measure to the honors.


Roy sweeping paper airplanes at the 1998 ceremony. This is not as minor a task as some people assume. During the ceremony, so many paper airplanes accumulate on the stage that, without the good work of diligent sweepers, it would become impossible for anyone to walk safely.

By the way, an odd burglary happened some years ago to at Roy’s house: someone stole Roy’s Nobel Prize!

UPDATE: Obituaries in Physics World, the Harvard Crimson, the Boston Globe, New York Times.

Ig Nobel on Science Friday on the day after Thanksgiving

Thursday, November 22nd, 2018

The 28th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony will be broadcast on the Science Friday program this Friday, November 23rd, 2018, in a specially-edited, recorded one-hour highlights version.

This continues the day-after-Thanksgiving tradition—now in its 27th year—for Science Friday’s special coverage of the ceremony. In most parts of the USA, it will be the first hour of the Science Friday radio broadcast. You can, alternatively, listen online. (Can’t wait? Listen to some of the broadcasts from previous years that are archived online.)

We always enjoy seeing/hearing how our friends at Science Friday manage to wrangle the complex Ig Nobel ceremony down into an entertaining, all-audio single radio hour.

The photo you see here is an action shot taken at this year’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. It shows part of the on-stage demonstration for the chemistry prize. Francesca Bewer is on the left, Eric Workman is on the right. The photo was taken by Howard Cannon.

UPDATE: For more info about the ceremony, including video, visit the 28th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony web page.  The special Ig Nobel issue of the magazine will present further details—that issue will appear in late December; if you subscribe beforehand the special issue will be sent to you automatically.

The Man Who—With a Blinding, Flapping Visor—Drove on a Highway

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

John’s Story – The Science of Error” is a new documentary film about John Senders, the Ig Nobel Prize winning, pioneering student of human attention and distraction. Back Lane Studios produced the film:

The 2011 Ig Nobel Prize for Public Safety was awarded to John Senders of the University of Toronto, CANADA, for conducting a series of safety experiments in which a person drives an automobile on a major highway while a visor repeatedly flaps down over his face, blinding him.

He wrote about that research: “The Attentional Demand of Automobile Driving,” John W. Senders, et al., Highway Research Record, vol. 195, 1967, pp. 15-33.

This video [which is excerpted in the new documentary] shows Senders pioneering his work:

Third-generation Ig Nobel Prize winner David Hu, profiled in the New York Times

Monday, November 5th, 2018

David Hu’s Ig Nobel Prize-winning research, and David Hu, and David Hu’s Ig Nobel  Prize-winning former advisor, and that advisor’s double-Ig Nobel Prize-winning former adviser, and lots more, are profiled in the New York Times:

…As male infants will do, his son urinated all over the front of Dr. Hu’s shirt, for a full 21 seconds. Yes, he counted off the time, because for him curiosity trumps irritation.

That was a long time for a small baby, he thought. How long did it take an adult to empty his bladder? He timed himself. Twenty-three seconds. “Wow, I thought, my son urinates like a real man already.”

He recounts all of this without a trace of embarrassment, in person and in “How to Walk on Water and Climb up Walls: Animal Movements and the Robotics of the Future,” just published, in which he describes both the silliness and profundity of his brand of research….

Dr. Hu is a mathematician in the Georgia Tech engineering department who studies animals. His seemingly oddball work has drawn both the ire of grandstanding senators and the full-throated support of at least one person in charge of awarding grants from that bastion of frivolity, the United States Army….  [He] is completely serious when he describes Dr. Hu as a scientist of “profound courage and integrity” who “goes where his curiosity leads him.”

Dr. Hu has “an uncanny ability to identify and follow through on scientific questions that are hidden in plain sight,” Dr. Stanton said.

When it comes to physics, the Army and Dr. Hu have a deep affinity. They both operate at human scale in the world outside the lab, where conditions are often wet, muddy or otherwise difficult.

In understanding how physics operates in such conditions, Dr. Stanton explained, “the vagaries of the real world really come to play in an interesting way.” …

UPDATE [November 8, 2018]: The New York Times produced an educational guide follow-up to the profile: “ARTICLE OF THE DAY—Learning With: ‘The Mysteries of Animal Movement’


Tom and Joan Steitz, and a clarinet player

Thursday, October 11th, 2018

Tom Steitz has died; his obituary is in New York Times. He was half of a marriage of two great and celebrated chemists, who met while they were grad students of the great and celebrated Professor Lipscomb, whom many of you saw and met at two decades of Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies.  (We met at a memorial for Bill Lipscomb, in 2011.)

Tom and Joan are the glamorous mystery couple featured on the back cover of the special Professor Lipscomb issue (vol. 17, no. 4, 2011) of the Annals of Improbable Research., along with a clarinet player named William Lipscomb.

The Times obituary says:

Thomas A. Steitz, a towering figure of late-20th-century science who shared a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for figuring out the structure of a huge molecule central to translating the genetic code into the proteins that make up living matter, died on Tuesday at his home in Branford, Conn. He was 78….

…he went to Harvard for graduate school. Dr. Steitz decided then and there to become an X-ray crystallographer. He joined a group led by William N. Lipscomb, the only scientist at Harvard using that technique. Dr. Lipscomb was awarded the chemistry Nobel Prize in 1976….

After Cambridge Dr. Steitz began a long career at Yale, which also hired his wife, Joan Argetsinger Steitz, an eminent molecular biologist and recipient this year of a prestigious Lasker special achievement award in medical science….

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