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.


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.


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.

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.

“Christmas in Danish”

Two weeks ago I attended University of Copenhagen International Staff Mobility‘s (ISM’s) “Christmas in Danish” event. It was a fun initiative of the ISM to help the international staff experience how Christmas is celebrated in Denmark. Naturally, we had to make traditional Danish Christmas decorations and have traditional Danish Christmas meal.

The first thing we had to do was to make julestjerne (Froebel star) and julehjerte (pleated Christmas hearts) while having pebernødder (literally means pepper nuts, but it contains neither pepper nor nuts). I was actually not at the event yet when this was happening, as I was at my Danish class.

By the time I get to the event, the main meal was just about to start. The traditional Danish Christmas meal consists of roast duck, caramelised potatoes, rødkål (pickled red cabbage), and risalamande (rice pudding). I don’t remember if æbleskiver (round pancakes served with jam) was served as well at the event. If it was, then I must have missed it.

Risalamande is an interesting dish. Nowadays it is cooked in a large batch with one (or a few) almonds hidden inside it. Whoever finds the almond wins a present. I really don’t like it, though. I guess it’s because I am used to having rice as a main dish, that having it served as dessert just doesn’t sit well with me.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable occasion. A good meal with good company. The only thing I didn’t like was the guest speaker. We had a French-Danish comedian, Thierry Geoffroy, whose humour I simply do not get. Everyone else seemed to enjoy his humour, but I simply cringed. Oh well, can’t have everything perfect, I guess.

Finished Danish Module 1

Last Thursday I had my Danish test with the rest of the class which marked the end of our Module 1One by one, we had to go into the classroom and spend 10 minutes on the oral test. I was number four, but decided to go to Studieskolen early so I could do some more last-minute revising before taking my test. However, I didn’t end up doing much revising and instead just chatted with my fellow classmates who were taking the test before me.

So, the test itself consisted of three three tasks:

  1. Tell a story from five possible topics that we had to choose randomly – all of which we had to prepare for. We had about two minutes to tell the story. We were allowed to bring in a sheet with keywords, but were encouraged not to use it if we could.
  2. Converse with the teacher, who would ask us questions based on the story that we have just told her. In my case, she actually interspersed her questions as I was telling my story.
  3. Make up a conversation for the stickmen which the teacher had chosen randomly from our workbook. The stickmen are an important part of our learning. They have speech bubbles filled with keywords, which gives us clues as to what they are supposed to be saying.

The story that I picked was one that I was not terribly confident about. I found that one to be the hardest to describe. So I had to resort to using my sheet quite a bit. I think I did OK though. The section that I don’t think I did well enough was answering the teacher’s questions. I must admit, I am still not used to using Danish on the spot. There were times when I started speaking, but didn’t think through about what I wanted to say. As a result, I missed a word or two. But the teacher didn’t seem to mind it. She corrected me and I immediately realised the mistake I had done. I did much better in the stickmen. As I mentioned, the stickmen are an important part of our learning. I guess we had done them enough times that I just remember the conversations that they are supposed to be having. The teacher also made a comment which I am sure every single one of us in Module 1 got: that I mispronounced some of the words. So I guess we will all have to work on that.

This coming Tuesday, we will start Module 2! It is hard to believe that 3 months ago, we didn’t know any Danish whatsoever. We have definitely learnt a lot. I am not sure if everyone in our class passed or not. But I do know that some will be leaving us: one will take a more intensive course and one will be leaving Denmark for a while. I think there are also another one or two who will take a break from the classes. So I guess it’s as good time as any to get together and celebrate our accomplishment – small that may be.


Job contract

KU Contract
KU Contract

So, after 4 months, I have finally got my contract at KU.

Wait, did you say that you just got your contract?

Why, yes I did.

After 4 months?


So you’re finally getting paid now?

No. I have been getting my salary since my first month here.

That’s bizarre!

Yes. I guess that just shows how trusting Danes are.

That is unheard of in Australia… at least as far as foreigners are concerned.

That’s right. In Australia, you need to have a contract before you can even apply for your work visa to enter the country. And speaking of work permit, in Denmark, you are free to enter the country as a tourist and then apply for a work permit once you are in. As for me, I got my work permit sorted out before I even landed on Danish soil.

So how come it took a long time for you to get your contract?

Well, my contract was only processed when I arrived in late May. It took some time to process because the HR person has to go through my education and work history to assign the correct amount for my salary. Also, when I arrived, it was the beginning of summer, so a lot of people were away for summer vacation.

I see…

Actually, there’s more to it than that. I only got my contract because we stumbled into it accidentally.

Accidentally? What do you mean?

Well, I went to a workshop in Germany. So I wanted to lodge a travel expense claim form. I needed to know where my funding comes from. So the group administrator tried to look for it in my folder, and she came across my contract!

That was lucky.

The funny thing is, it was dated the end of June!

Wait a minute… so the contract was actually ready for 3 months?

Yes. It was actually sent to my previous address! I moved out from my old place at the end of June. I didn’t get a mail redirection because I wasn’t expecting to get any snail mail. I was expecting the contract to be sent electronically.

Ah, so that was your fault.

Hmm… I guess so. But it all worked out in the end. I signed it, despite the contract saying “return within 14 days”. The International HR staff just laughed it off. Like I said, Danes a pretty relaxed about this kind of things.

Well, all’s well that ends well, I guess!

Yes, I agree completely.

Learning Danish

Learning Danish
Learning Danish

Just over two weeks ago, I applied to learn Danish at Studieskolen. There is no obligation for me to learn it, as the everyday language used at the University is English. Indeed, most Danes speak English very well. However, since I will be in Denmark for at least a few years, I thought it would make a lot of sense for me to learn Danish. Besides, I found that learning a language helps one in understanding the culture.

So I had my entrance interview with a nice lady from Studieskolen. She gave me a sentence and asked me to identify parts of the sentence (subject, verb, object, noun, adjective, article, pronoun, preposition, and adverb). Uh-oh… I had forgotten my grammar theory. Some of them were obvious, but some were not, at least to me. I last learnt grammar theory 16 years ago, and I have been putting theory into practice ever since. Just when I thought I had blown it, she gave me another test. This time I had to repeat some sentences in Danish that she read from a book. Then she asked me to translate the sentences to English. Some parts were obvious, but some parts I didn’t know about. Like any self-respecting scientist, I then started looking at the picture that accompanied the text and managed to translate some more parts. My interviewer said she was impressed and said that she had never seen anyone done that before. But I’m sure she said that to anybody who had bothered to look at the picture.

Anyway, so I signed up right there and then, and had my first class in the afternoon that very same day. Danish is certainly not the easiest of languages (and probably not the hardest either) to learn. The problem is simply that the spoken language is almost, but not quite, entirely unlike the written language. Letters and sometimes entire words get dropped with seemingly no pattern whatsoever. For example, the word “selvfølgelig” (meaning “of course”) has 6 letters dropped from it, and is pronounced se-fø-li (approximately like saying “say-foe-lee”). The sentence “det ved jeg ikke” (meaning “I don’t know that”) has the last letter from each word dropped. The sentence “jeg er australier” (meaning “I am an Australian”) has the “g” and the entire word “er” dropped. Learning Danish truly is like learning two separate languages. And don’t get me started on the (lack of) logic of counting numbers and telling time! A fellow student said to me that it is as if the Danes deliberately chose the hardest and non-obvious/non-logical way possible.

I am in good company, though. There are eleven of us plus our teacher. Our teacher is a Dane (selvfølgelig!) and then we have three Spaniards, a Romanian, a Frenchman, a Croat, a Nigerian, a Pakistani, a German, an Austrian, and me. We come from different backgrounds: three physicists (yeah, really!), a mathematician, two designers, an architect, a programmer, a psychologist, a business student, and a banker. We have our classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays in late afternoon. Each class goes for 2.5 hours plus 10-20 minute break. We usually have pronunciation and dialogue training which we either do individually or with 1-2 partners (depending on how many people turn up). It is now halfway through our module (module 1.1), and the material is getting more difficult. There are plenty of new words and new phrases to remember, and it is obvious that everyone is a bit overwhelmed. But it is good to see that no-one has dropped out yet. The next module (module 1.2) will start straight after this one finishes. The people I talked to said that they wanted to take some time off for a while and then pick up module 1.2 in the next cycle (each module takes 6 weeks to complete). I am also thinking the same. However, the downsides of taking the time off are: we might forget some of the material that we’ve learnt, and we won’t get the same teacher. We all like her; she’s very good and patient with us. So maybe I’ll continue on until I at least finish module 1.2 (i.e. the entire module 1). We’ll see. But at the moment, I am certainly enjoying the classes. And in any case, we will all go out to celebrate the completion of module 1.1.

Thesis defence

Yesterday I attended my first (Masters) thesis defence. This was a new experience for me, as there is no such thing as a thesis defence in Australia. The format was 30 minutes of presentation aimed at a general audience followed by 30 minutes of question time.

The presentation was open to public. In yesterday’s case, the presenter’s family (including grandparents!) came, along with pretty much everyone in the group. The question time, on the other hand, was done behind closed doors. There were just the presenter and her two examiners, while the rest of us shuffled to the lounge room. Some of us helped the presenter’s parents to take some food out of their car.

Oh, the food. It was a (bite-sized) feast! There were finger food and some cakes. They really do take their thesis defence seriously in Denmark! Of course, I only have one data point at the moment, so I can’t tell if this is a typical thing or not.

After question time, the presenter (and her examiners) came to the lounge with a look of massive relief on her face. She and her supervisor gave a short speech, and then the merriment began.

I actually found the whole experience to be quite nice. There are some similarities with what we currently have in Australia anyway. In Denmark, you have to hand in your thesis and then prepare your presentation/defence. In Australia, the thesis defence is like your final talk, which you typically give before handing in your thesis. So I guess it’s not all that different.