Ig Nobel Prize talk

Yesterday I went to the Ig Nobel Prize talk in Copenhagen. It am glad that the talk has become a yearly event. So, for my friends outside Denmark, consider yourselves warned.

The event followed what seemed to be an established schedule now. Marc Abrahams, the creator of Ig Nobel, gives an introduction to the Ig Nobel Prize, along with the list of winners of last year’s prizes. My favourites include:

  • the Ig Nobel Prize in Public Health for the investigation on whether it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat,
  • the Ig Nobel Prize in Psychology for finding evidence that people who habitually stay up late are, on average, more self-admiring, more manipulative, and more psychopathic than people who habitually arise early in the morning,
  • the Ig Nobel Prize in Art for the investigation on the relative pain people suffer while looking at an ugly painting, rather than a pretty painting, while being shot [in the hand] by a powerful laser beam.

After the introduction, there were three current and one past Ig Nobel Prize winners who gave short talks. True to the Ig Nobel Prize tradition, there was a time keeper… well, in fact two of them. They would stand up and signal the audience to say “hey” to the speaker at 5 and 10 minutes into the presentation, and every minute up to 15 minutes. But I think next year they should hire a little girl to go up to the speaker and say “Please stop. I’m bored.“, just like in the Ig Nobel ceremonies.

Anyway, the talks were:

  • Hynek Burda (2014 Ig Nobel Prize in Biology) who presented his discovery that when dogs defecate and urinate, they prefer to align their body axis with Earth’s geomagnetic field lines
  • Jaroslav Flegr (2014 Ig Nobel Prize in Public Health) who presented his investigation on whether or not it is mentally hazardous for a human being to own a cat. Incidentally, Prof Flegr is a dead ringer for Dr Emmett Brown (from Back to the Future).
  • Eigil Reimers (2014 Ig Nobel Prize in Arctic Science) who presented his research on how reindeer react to seeing humans who are disguised as polar bears. This is pretty much the best talk of the whole evening. The research questions that he presented was very compelling and the methodologies ingenious.
  • Finally Yoshiro Nakamatsu (Dr NakaMats, 2005 Ig Nobel Prize in Nutrition) who photographed his meals for more than 34 years. But his presentation was on his 3500+ inventions… or maybe ‘inventions’, I’m not sure. He claimed to have invented, amongst others, floppy disk, CD, and DVD. Then, things got weird. The room suddenly broke out in a song about beating cancer, complete with karaoke lyrics. (Dr NakaMats was sadly diagnosed with prostate cancer and is not expected to live beyond 2015.) It was surreal.

Well, overall it was a mixed bag. I think last year’s event was a bit better and made me laugh and think much more than this year’s event.

It’s been a while

Hello. It’s been a while. I’m still alive, but evidently haven’t had the chance to update this blog for a while. So I’ve been doing more travelling lately.

On Friday the 13th, I could not resist the temptation to fly to HEL on Flight 666. In fact, I was planning to go in June last year, but moved my plans because I had a visitor then. Helsinki is a very nice city. It is far enough north that when I visited, some of the water was still covered in ice.

I spent most of my time in Suomenlinna, which is an old fortress just outside Helsinki. It witnessed the handover of Finland to Russia by an extremely cunning plan. Even though the Russian navy was far inferior in number and firepower, they utilised psychological tactics that made the Swedes believed otherwise. This triggered Carl Olof Cronstedt to surrender, much to his men’s dismay.

Another favourite place of mine is the Kamppi chapel. It’s a chapel right in the middle of the City. Once you step in, you are met with total silence. It’s in contrast to the hustle and bustle of the City outside, and it is amazing to find a place of pure solitude right in the middle of the busiest street in Helsinki!

Straight after the Helsinki trip, I went to Bonn for a symposium. One of the methods I use is COSMO-RS, which is a solvation model coupled with thermodynamics. I presented a poster there, which I think was received well. Overall, the conference was alright.

After the conference, a colleague and I explored Bonn a bit. It’s a fairly small town, and it still amazes me that it used to be the capital of West Germany. My favourite place in Bonn is the Arithmeum. It’s a museum that is dedicated to mathematics. How cool is that? There were a lot of computing machines that you can play around with. It covers the history of mathematics and computing from the early ages (abacus and the like) to the silicon era. I could have spent days there.

So now I am just about ready to go to my next destination: Japan. I am leaving in just over 12 hours, so I guess I should get ready for it.


CarbFix is one of the many projects that we have going at NanoGeoScience. The project aims to convert carbon dioxide into carbonate minerals (e.g. calcite) through reaction of the gas with basalt.

Recently, the project has been featured by the New York Times. Check it out if you are interested to see some of the exciting science that we do here.

Turning Carbon Dioxide Into Rock, and Burying It” by Henry Fountain, 9 Feb 2015.


For 2014, I set myself a goal: to visit one new place each month. With my latest trip to Oslo, I managed to achieve it. This time, I went on a mini cruise for the heck of it. As it turned out, that the ferry trip meant that I have also used all the transportation methods this year: airplane, train, and ferry.

When I wrote it was a mini cruise, I really meant it. The ferry left at 4 pm on Friday and arrived in Oslo at 10 am on Saturday, before leaving again at 4 pm the same day and reaching Copenhagen at 10 am on Sunday. This leaves only around 6 hours in Oslo itself. Even though time was tight, I still managed to visit a few places:

So now, my complete list of new places I have gone to this year becomes:

Jan: London, UK
Feb: Doha, Qatar
Mar: Reykjavík, Iceland
Apr: Rome, Italy
May: Göttingen, Germany
Jun: Hamburg, Germany
Jul: Prague, Czech Republic
Aug: Vienna, Austria
Sep: Zürich, Switzerland
Oct: Cologne, Germany
Nov: Stockholm, Sweden
Dec: Oslo, Norway

As before, the months in italic denote that the trip didn’t actually happen in that month.


Winter in Denmark is often cold and dark. At winter solstice, we only get just over 7 hours of sunshine. There is a Danish word, hygge, which roughly translates to cosiness. But it actually means a bit more than that. It’s actually a way of life. Instead of being cooped up inside because we cannot go outside, we choose to be inside and cosy up. It’s just a simple change of perspective but incredibly empowering. No longer are we a prisoner of the weather, we take charge over it.

Christmas is also a weird time in Denmark. Not a lot of Danes go to church anymore, yet Christmas and the traditions around it are still lovingly celebrated. One such tradition is julestue, which I guess translates to Christmas celebration. It’s an event where people gather around making julepynt (Christmas decoration) for the juletræ (Christmas tree), while drinking gløgg (mulled wine) and eating æbleskiver (literally apple slices, but they are actually round pancakes served with jam and powdered sugar).

I went to one of these julestue events organised by the University of Copenhagen’s International Staff Mobility. It was a fun event. We made julehjerter (Christmas hearts), which is a very Danish thing to do. They are basically paper baskets that one weaves out of paper, which one then hangs on the Christmas tree and fill with goodies.

The Christmas hearts I made before I got bored and started chatting with people instead.
The Christmas tree that we decorated.


Last week I went on my monthly trip, this time to Stockholm. Even though Stockholm is not that far away from Copenhagen, it still took me 5 hours by train to get there. It was also the shortest trip that I’ve done so far. I took off from Copenhagen on Friday evening, spent the whole Saturday in Stockholm, and then went back on Sunday morning.

In Stockholm, I spent the day visiting three museums:

Aside from those, I only had little chance of exploring the city. I guess the nooks and crannies can wait for another time I’m in town.

Kulturnatten 2014

In Denmark, there is a week of holiday called efterårsferie (autumn holiday), which is also known as kartoffelferie (potato holiday), as in the old days schoolkids get a week off to help with potato harvest. These days, schoolkids still have a week off and there are no classes (including at universities and language schools). However, there is no longer any need for these kids to work at a farm picking potatoes.

On the Friday preceding the potato week, there is kulturnat (Culture Night) in Copenhagen. (I guess kulturnat is somewhat similar to White Night in Melbourne.) On that day, a lot of institutions open their doors to the public, and people can come in and check out what’s behind the normally closed doors in Copenhagen. In a very Danish way, everything is free… as long as you have a pass. These places are supposed to be open from 6 pm to midnight, but there are many which close much earlier (8-9 pm). Public transport around Copenhagen is also free from 5 pm to 5 am on Saturday. There are of course a lot of people in the City, and there are queues everywhere.

Kulturnatten 2014 badge.
Kulturnatten 2014 badge

This year, a group of us went to several places:

  • The first place we went to was Sankt Petri Kirke (Saint Peter’s Church), where we visited the catacombs. It’s actually not as impressive as it sounds. We were expecting to go under the church, but the catacombs were only at the back of the church. We didn’t even need our torches.
  • We briefly visited the Metro construction at the Rådhus (City Hall), but unfortunately didn’t get to see the tunnels, as the line was so long!
  • At the Rådhus, we visited Jens Olsens Verdensur (Jens Olsen’s World Clock). This one I really like, actually.
  • Jens Olsens Verdensur (Jens Olsen’s World Clock) at the Rådhus (City Hall).
    Jens Olsens Verdensur (Jens Olsen’s World Clock) at the Rådhus (City Hall).
  • At this stage, the rest of the gang left for beer-tasting. I decided to go to the Brandvæsen (Fire Department) and checked it out.
  • I went past the fængsel (prison) and a photography exhibition as I made my way to catch up with the guys again. Of course, they were still in line. It would take them another half hour to finally get into Europa-Huset and get their beer. Meanwhile, I caught up with another group and went to the barracks of the Kongelige Livgarde (Royal Life Guards).
  • Shortly afterwards, we joined forces with the beer-tasting group again and visited the Botanisk Have (Botanical Gardens). There were some light show at the lake and the palmhus (palm house). They were quite cool, but slightly underwhelming.

Those were all that we could see that night. I think next year if I am still in Copenhagen, I will go and check out the prison and the Rosenborg Slot (Rosenborg Castle). The latter you can explore in the darkness! They turn the lights off, and you are free to wander around using torches.

Germany again

It seems that Germany is the country I visit the most since I arrived in Denmark. Last week I went to Leverkusen for a workshop on one of the software that we use. We seem to have built up a good working relationship with them. One of the modellers in our group in particular has collaborated closely with them to the point that there will be a new module for that software based on that collaboration. The workshop itself was just as you would expect. There were surprisingly a lot of people from industry, so it was a good opportunity to form connections.

My flight to Germany (Düsseldorf) was actually ridiculously early in the morning. So I had to get up very early and didn’t get much sleep at all. In fact, it was so early that I actually had to wait at a Metro station for the first train to the airport. At Düsseldorf, I actually missed the train I wanted to catch (by a few seconds!) but managed to take another train and catch the original train connection. After the workshop, it was raining heavily, so one of the workshop organisers gave me a lift to the station. The station was under renovation, though. So I had problems getting my ticket (the machine rejected my card!) and also had to go around the long way to reach the platform, causing me to miss my train to Cologne.

Fortunately the rest of the trip was very relaxing. It was my first trip to Cologne, which is also my proper September destination this year. When I roamed the City the following day, it turned out that the new Cardinal of Cologne was having his installation ceremony then, so there was much happening in town. I managed to escape all of that, though. Instead, I visited a friend of mine who now works in Cologne. Of course, no trip to Cologne is complete without a visit to the Chocolate Museum. But to me, the highlight of the trip was probably the EL-DE Haus, which used to be the headquarters of the Gestapo, and now serves as a reminder of the atrocities of war.

The Great European Trip

Some of you know that I have been trying to visit one new place each month this year. I’m trying to take advantage of the fact that I don’t have to fly 3 hours in order to get to the nearest country.

This northern summer I was away to quite a number of new places. In 12 days, my mum, my brother, and I started in Copenhagen and then went and visited Malmö, Hamburg, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, and Zürich. We took advantage of the extensive rail network in Europe and took various trains to get from one city to another. We didn’t get rail passes, but went on specific trains. This is partly because mum had to apply for Schengen visa, which required a full itinerary of the places we would visit, including accommodation and transport details, and a list of things we were planning to see. Yes, it’s that ridiculously complicated.

So with those places, my list of new places I have gone to this year becomes:

Jan: London, UK
Feb: Doha, Qatar
Mar: Reykjavík, Iceland
Apr: Rome, Italy
May: Göttingen, Germany
Jun: Hamburg, Germany
Jul: Prague, Czech Republic
Aug: Vienna, Austria
Sep: Zürich, Switzerland

The months in italic denote that the trip didn’t actually happen in that month. So now I’m missing three new places to visit before achieving my goal. In September, I will actually go on a trip to Leverkusen (Germany) for a workshop. I am hoping to swing by Cologne and add that to my list. After that, maybe Oslo or Bergen. I have no idea what the last place would be. Any suggestions?

So, for the Great European Trip itself, there were a few highlights:

  • My brother asking for a non-alcoholic beer in Hamburg, much to our waiter’s disapproval.
  • We had a very friendly taxi driver in Berlin, who almost caused a traffic accident right outside our hotel.
  • A very eventful train ride from Prague to Vienna on a sleeping carriage. All of us hardly got any sleep because the carriage moved around too much. Mum also got motion sickness.
  • We met a lady with a cast on her leg who tried to get to the Gloriette at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. She was using a kind of skateboard with handles and a seat that she could rest her broken leg on. It took her a while, but she did it.
  • Me taking a Swiss Army Knife on board my flight from Zürich to Berlin. I didn’t get into trouble because of that, but the security lady advised me to check it in on other flights.

Oh yeah, I flew back from Zürich to Copenhagen with a stopover in Berlin. Flights out of Zürich are ridiculously expensive! In Berlin, I also had a couple of memorable moments:

  • They gave us some a piece of chocolate as we disembarked the plane. I was going to eat it, but then I saw my friend, so I put my chocolate into my pocket. I completely forgot about it. But the time I got to my friend’s place, it had melted and smeared all over my wallet and mobile. It was a really hot day.
  • Berlin having a major work on their train system, so getting to Schönefeld was very difficult. When I got there, I went to security checkpoint, but the security guy immediately said that I had brought two pieces of luggage (I brought my usual backpack and a small carry-on). Other flight carriers wouldn’t normally count a backpack as a luggage, but EasyJet would! So I had to go to the counter and pay EUR 55 to check my carry-on in. But by that time, the check-in window had closed. So I had to bring my luggage myself to the gate. At security, I had to ask people to let me through (which they thankfully obliged). But my security line was very slow. The security lady even started to chat with me, but I said that I had to catch my flight, so she let me go. I basically ran all the way to the gate and made it with about 20 minutes to spare. There were still a few people waiting there who also got caught out by the train work! So we finally managed to board the plane. The really annoying thing was, the flight attendant asked me if I wanted to put my backpack on the overhead compartment, as they had “plenty of space”! Grrr…

Anyway, the photos are still coming. I just have to go through the 1000+ photos (not including the ones that my brother took) at some stage.

Cycling in Copenhagen

Copenhagen is certainly one of the most bicycle friendly cities in the world. It didn’t take me long to get used to cycling here, even though it took me ages until I obtained a bicycle (in fact, I inherited two bicycles).

Cycling is the easiest and fastest way of getting around in Copenhagen. There’s hardly any cars at all in the City Centre. I found it quite unusual that way. Anyway, the first trip I did on my bicycle was to the Copenhagen Zoo. Now, Copenhagen in general is very flat, which makes it very ideal for cycling around. However, the zoo is located on a little hill, which means it was not that easy for someone who hadn’t cycled far before.

Since then, I have cycled practically everyday and thankfully haven’t been involved in any major mishaps. Well, there were two times that I fell off my bike. Each time, it was because of uneven road.

The longest bicycle trip I did was when I went to Farum for a group party at our boss’s house. A couple of my colleagues came with me, even though I told them that I would go on a scenic route. We managed to get to Farum in about 1.5 hours. It was certainly fun, although my colleagues thought otherwise and abandoned me to cycle back alone to Copenhagen at the end of the day.

Anyway, here’s a 7-minute video that shows the innovations in Copenhagen that make it easier for cyclists in the City.