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Published on November 8th, 2012 | by Michael Ricciardi


The 2012 ‘Ig Nobel’ Prizes in Physics: Spilling Coffee, Bouncing Ponytails

If you are a follower of the annual Nobel Prizes — especially in the sciences — you are probably already aware that two physicists, Serge Haroche and David Wineland, received the 2012 Nobel Prize in Physics for their “significant advances in the realization of quantum phenomena with many beautiful experiments” and their “ability to manipulate atoms and photons to demonstrate fundamental aspects of quantum physics.” Kudos to them! (if you’d like to read more on these, see the full APS press release).

However, each year following the Nobel prize announcements, another slew of (dubious) honors is announced: the Ig Nobel awards.

The Ig Nobel “prizes” go to research of questionable or even (seemingly) trivial scientific value. This year’s “Iggies” in Physics and Fluid Dynamics (a sort of “step child” specialty within physics proper) went to a total of five researchers in two collaborative partnerships — with each receiving prior publication in a prestigious Physical Review (APS) journal — and focusing on phenomena that can only be described as, um…rather less than  crucial…but, one never knows…

So, if you must understand how hair bundles when it bounces, or, why rushing to class causes your espresso to spill…read on…

The 2012 Ig Nobel Prize for ‘Physics’  goes to…

Raymond E. Goldstein, Patrick B. Warren, and Robin C. Ball for their hair-raising work on the shape and motion of human hair when bundled in a ponytail.

You can read a synopsis of the paper in this Physics article Ponytail Physics.

But here’s a taste of what you can expect:

“Researchers have for the first time disentangled the factors that determine how hairs hang together, as reported in Physical Review Letters. The analytical model, which was based on a statistical characterization of ponytail shapes, treats the forces on individual hair fibers as continuous quantities inside a hair bundle. The resulting hair “equation of state” could apply to other fibers in biology and industry.”

So, if that raises your hair curiosity, and you just must know more on  “individual fibers as elastic filaments with random intrinsic curvatures”…check out their paper “Shape of a Ponytail and the Statistical Physics of Hair Fiber Bundles).

Meanwhile, Rebecca Thompson (APS’s Head of Public Outreach) writes about her attempt to duplicate the fascinating ponytail research at her Physics Central blog.

Next up…the 2012 Ig Nobel Prize for ‘Fluid Dynamics’ goes to…

H.C. Mayer and R. Krechetnikov for their stimulating study on the dynamics of sloshing coffee. Here’s just a taste of the study’s findings (excerpt from the paper ‘Walking with coffee: Why does it spill?’ abstract):

Here we report on the results of an experimental study of the conditions under which coffee spills for various walking speeds and initial liquid levels in the cup. These observations are analyzed from the dynamical systems and fluid mechanics viewpoints as well as with the help of a model developed here. Particularities of the common cup sizes, the coffee properties, and the biomechanics of walking proved to be responsible for the spilling phenomenon. The studied problem represents an example of the interplay between the complex motion of a cup, due to the biomechanics of a walking individual, and the low-viscosity-liquid dynamics in it.

So, the “biomechanics of walking proved to be responsible for the spilling phenomenon”…indeed!

And if that doesn’t satisfy your thirst for more ‘dynamics of coffee’ knowledge, check out the synopsis in Physics, Science of Slosh (from April, 2012).

And, what’s more…you can listen to this Physics Central podcast for more highlights and in-depth interviews with the winners.

Top image: ‘Coffee Cup…’ via

Second image: ‘ponytail’ via

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About the Author

Michael Ricciardi is a well-published writer of science/nature/technology articles as well as essays, poetry and short fiction. Michael has interviewed dozen of scientists from many scientific fields, including Brain Greene, Paul Steinhardt, Arthur Shapiro, and Nobel Laureate Ilya Progogine (deceased). Michael was trained as a naturalist and taught ecology and natural science on Cape Cod, Mass. from 1986-1991. His first arts grant was for production of the environmental (video) documentary 'The Jones River - A Natural History', 1987-88 (Kingston, Mass.). Michael is an award winning, internationally screened video artist. Two of his more recent short videos; 'A Time of Water Bountiful' and 'My Name is HAM' (an "imagined memoir" about the first chimp in space), and several other short videos, can be viewed on his website ( He is also the author of the (Kindle) ebook: Artful Survival ~ Creative Options for Chaotic Times

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