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.


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.

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.

Institute picnic

Two Fridays ago, our institute had a picnic day. But instead of an actual picnic, we went to Klatreskoven (literally “the climbing forest”). There, we were split into two groups. One group went to the individual course and another went to the team course. After two hours (and lunch), the two groups swapped courses.

Our group went to the team course first. We were split up into further smaller groups. Each of these small groups consisted of about 10 people. Then the fun began. Our team did two exercises:

  • The first one was an exercise where two people climb up a tree. Each of them had two people responsible for their safety. Once the two people reached the top, they had to step on a plank which had to be be stabilised by someone on the ground. There were several of these planks, each one had to be stabilised by a person. That person also had to help the climber step on to the next plank. Because there were two climbers, they would eventually meet in the middle, whereupon they had to pass one another and get to the other side. The idea of this exercise is that the climbers will fail unless supported and helped by the people stabilising the planks.
  • The other exercise involved a wide “ladder” made of bamboo, each rung was about 1 m apart. There were three climbers (each supported by two safety people) who had to work together to climb the ladder. They could only touch the rung and each other. They could not touch any of the ropes. The idea of this exercise is obviously for the climbers to work together as a team to climb the ladder.

After lunch and some rest, we did the individual course. This one was more to do with having fun. There were several difficulty levels: green, blue, red, and black. The more difficult the course is, the longer it would take to complete it. I am not terribly fond of heights, so I only did the green course. It was kinda fun, though.

In the afternoon, we had a tour of the professor’s villa at Carlsberg. The villa hosted many eminent scientists, writers, and artists, including Niels Bohr who presumably had access to beer on tap 24 hours a day. Carlsberg is actually one of the (I think) rare companies which give a lot back to society. The group made their fortune through science, and they are repaying their debts by establishing funds for basic research. The group even has a research centre dedicated to biochemistry.

Anyway, that evening we also had a Dwarf Party at Nano-Science Center. It’s an annual party mainly aimed to give the opportunity for people from the Nano-Science Center to mingle with each other. As part of the party, there was a game that we had to do. They divided us based on age (and therefore roughly by position). There were the Bachelors/Masters students, the PhD students, and the post docs/professors. The aim of the game was to launch a bottle as high as possible.

I had my doubts about the success of this game, because I found it highly illogical to have 20+ people in each group. In hindsight, this was a brilliant exercise where each group’s mentality and way of thinking was really highlighted:

  • The Bachelors/Masters was kinda successful, even though it involved somewhat unconventional and borderline dangerous practices. At one stage, they over-pressurised their bottle and blew up the delivery system (a pipe). They also showed ingenuity by using a beer tap mechanism to launch their bottle (which didn’t work at all).
  • The PhD students thought about the problem thoroughly and devised a clean and efficient mechanism to launch their bottle. The technique was reproducible with excellent success rate.
  • The post docs/professors thought the longest and hardest about the problem. In the end, it was decided that baking soda and vinegar was the way to go. So out came the huge chemical bottles. We were still working on the vinegar delivery mechanism when the Bachelors/Masters and PhD students had launched their bottles at least once. In the end, our bottle never launched off the ground, and all we managed to do was to make the ground smell like vinegar that you can smell from 50 m away. Of course, apologists would have thought that it was just engineering problem.

Ig Nobel talk

On Wednesday, I went to a very special event: an Ig Nobel talk. For those of you not in the know, the Ig Nobel Prize is like the Nobel Prize, but for things that “first make people laugh, and then make them think”.

The talk was held at University of Copenhagen‘s Festsalen, a huge hall right in the middle of the City. The first speaker was Marc Abrahams, none other than the founder of the Ig Nobel himself. He spoke about the history of the Ig Nobel and his favourite cases. One standout example was a research called “Termination of Intractable Hiccups with Digital Rectal Massage”. When accepting his award, the late Francis Fesmire dressed up for the occasion. He wore a lab coat with rubber gloves, and he gave a salute with his index finger in the air. As he had sadly passed away recently, Marc asked the audience to salute Francis by pointing our index fingers into the air.

Marc also talked about the recent winners of the 2013 Ig Nobel Prize, including:

  • Ig Nobel Prize in Archeology, where the winners parboiled a dead shrew and swallowed it without chewing, and then carefully examined the excrement in order to see which bones would dissolve inside the stomach,
  • Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine, where the winners assessed the effect of listening to opera, on mice which have had heart transplant operations,
  • and my favourite, the Ig Nobel Prize in Probability, where the winners discovered two things: that the longer a cow has been lying down, the more likely that cow will soon stand up; and that once a cow stands up, one cannot easily predict how soon that cow will lie down again.

We were treated to talks by the winners of the first two Ig Nobel Prizes I mentioned. The speakers were Brian Crandall and Masanori Niimi, respectively. There was also a talk by a 2003 winner of the Ig Nobel in Biology, Kees Moeliker, who discovered the first scientifically recorded case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck. He also talked about the disappearance of the pubic lice from the modern society.

On top of all the excellent talks by the founder and winners of the Ig Nobel, we also had a guest speaker. During the talk two days previously (the first show in Århus), Marc was showing some of the Ig Nobel-worthy research, when one audience member yelled “that’s my research!”. So the following day (the second show in Århus), that researcher gave a brief talk of his work. As luck would have it, he has a colleague who is now at the University of Copenhagen. So he gave a talk in Copenhagen. The research was on the use of coconuts as a model for blunt-object skull damage. They had switched to coconuts after spending two Master projects refining a simulation program, and realised they could work a lot quicker with a physical model.

Anyway, I certainly enjoyed the event. There are some photos on Facebook if you’re interested.

The day we almost got scammed

From the annals of forgotten stories…

This is something that happened a while back in September when I was visited by a friend from Indonesia. One day we decided to go to see the Little Mermaid and then walk back to see the changing of the guards at Amalienborg.

So there we were, walking through a quiet street in Copenhagen. We saw a guy fiddling around with his map. He asked us if we could help him. Of course, I said yes. My friend was a bit wary though. So he walked a bit ahead of me while I helped the stranger. I pointed out that the first thing he should do was turn his map around (he was holding his map upside down).

Out of a sudden, two guys came out. They claimed to be undercover policemen and showed us their badges. They did it very quickly, so I asked to see them again. So they did, but prevented me from touching them for a closer inspection. Anyway, they then started asking questions, e.g. what we were doing, where we were from, etc. So I explained that I was helping this poor lost stranger. I then asked them what this was about. They replied that they were making sure we were not doing any illegal activities.

Things took an interesting turn when they started asking for my ID. So I asked them to see their IDs again, which they declined to do. I also declined showing my ID before they showed me theirs. After a brief stalemate, they asked me what I was doing in Denmark. I said I worked here. That seemed to settle the issue once and for all. They then said I was free to go. As they were leaving, I asked then what they would do with the lost stranger. The policemen said they would take care of him.

Moments afterwards, my friend who had been looking over the incident from a distance asked me what I thought had happened. So I told him that there were two undercover policemen who were patrolling the streets and making sure no illegal activities is taking place. Then my friend replied that to him, that was not what had happened. They were scammers who were trying to get me to hand over my ID so that I had to pay a fine to get it back. I then thought for a moment and realised that he was right! Holy crap! We were almost scammed!

Of course, thinking back to the incident, it was painfully obvious that they were trying to scam us: the upside-down map, the reluctance to show their IDs, them backing off when I told them I worked in Denmark. I guess I was too trusting with people in need. But fortunately I always ask for IDs from people claiming to be an authority. When I told some of my friends about it, they asked me if the “policemen” look like Danes. Well, they didn’t look Scandinavian, but that doesn’t mean they were not Danes.

Anyway, lesson learnt: always be wary when a stranger approaches you in a relatively quiet neighbourhood.

More impressions of Copenhagen

After a few weeks in Copenhagen, here are some more impressions:

  • When I first arrived, I could not find an equivalent of Target or Myer. Every supermarket has the same layout and the same bunch of stuff. I spent ages trying (and failing!) to find scouer and air freshener. But recently, I found one candidate that is kinda like Target: Føtex.
  • CPR is paramount. Getting it the first time around requires you to have at least a month contract on accommodation. Without it, you cannot do anything else. However, once you get it, it was easy (and possible) to do a lot of things, including lodging your change-of-address in advance.
  • Accommodation is definitely very difficult. I had a chat with several people, and they all got their first accommodation via friends of friends. I also found that even if you move 20 minutes away by train, they are still extremely expensive!
  • Water doesn’t taste good at all due to the incredibly high mineral content.
  • Contract is dependent on your past experience, so will take some time to process. More about this in my future post.
  • Science is well supported in Denmark. There are plenty of incentives for foreigners to come and do science here. For example, there is a ridiculously good tax scheme for researchers where instead of the usual 40-55% rate, you are taxed at 26% (plus 8% “labour market contribution). The caveat is, there is no possibility of a tax deduction.
  • There is also a new scheme where if you are only in Denmark for a short period of time, you can ask for your pension (superannuation) to be paid as part of your salary. If you are on the researcher tax scheme, this means the salary top-up will also be taxed at 26(+8)%. The alternative is to get the pension back when you leave the country, which will incur the full 40-55% tax.


Hard water

One of the things that I miss from Australia is how good the water tastes. Over here in Copenhagen, water is incredibly hard, as it has a very high minerals content. As a result, there is a serious problem with limescale deposits. At work, there is an electric kettle that is so covered with limescale that my tea tastes (and looks) horrible. I couldn’t have more than one sip! So today I went in to Uni with one purpose: to decalcify the kettle while no-one’s around.

This is what it looks like before I began. Look at how horrible the kettle looks.

The inside of the kettle before I decalcified it.
The inside of the kettle before I decalcified it.

I boiled some water and then poured some vinegar (da:eddike) in. For science geeks, vinegar will react with limescale to produce calcium acetate, water, and carbon dioxide. The last component is the reason why it bubbles up.

Adding vinegar to boiling water.
Adding vinegar to boiling water.

After mixing vinegar to boiling water several times, the kettle is now perfectly clean!

Clean kettle!
Clean kettle!

However, as a testament to the extremely high mineral content of Copenhagen water, check out the new limescale deposit after only two boils! I think my quest to get nice tasting tea will be doomed. On the other hand, if the group wants to get some chalk sample, we can just scrape off the bottom of the kettle.

New deposit after two boils!
New deposit after two boils!

First impressions of Copenhagen

After walking 16.5 km around Copenhagen, here are my first impressions, in no particular order:

  • Immigration was a breeze; there were no arrival and customs forms to fill in
  • Copenhagen is beautiful; the buildings are not very tall
  • Some restaurants will give you an English menu once you start talking to them
  • There is no clicker at the traffic intersections
  • Bikes, bikes, more bikes, and bike shops
  • Swans will encourage you to feed them if you approach them
  • A police car has a different siren sound compared to an ambulance
  • Just before the traffic light turns green, both red and yellow lights light up
  • There are a lot of churches
  • Some roads are very quiet because there are only bus and bicycle lanes
  • There are a lot of green copper statues
  • Lifts have doors that swing open, which may be made out of wood
  • I’m not feeling jet lagged (yet); although I am getting tired, perhaps due to the long walk
  • My colleagues are a nice bunch
  • Finding accommodation in/around Copenhagen is very difficult; it might be easier (but not necessarily cheaper, once transport is taken into account) to find a place to stay in Sweden, and then commute to work
  • The buskers are great; If you are in Copenhagen, make sure you find Peter Jones