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

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.

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.

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.

The state of science in Denmark

Last Thursday, we had a visit from the leader of the Head of Department of Chemistry. It was the usual deal with everyone introducing themselves and then he gave a brief spiel on what he wanted us to do or concentrate on.

One of the things he mentioned actually surprised me a bit. He said that we (as in the Department of Chemistry) needed to increase our number of students. In the past year, the first year intake for Chemistry has been about 50 students, whereas Physics intake is about 150 students. He said that the reason for high school students not to take Chemistry was that it is viewed as a hard science where you will be stuck with research, i.e. it didn’t lead to a “real” job.

Contrast this with, say, Australia, where Chemistry is undoubtedly more popular than Physics, precisely because it leads to more job opportunities. I also had a chat with a Swedish friend who confirmed that Chemistry is generally more popular there as well. I wonder if the Danes take up more Physics than Chemistry because of the legacy of Hans Christian Ørsted and Niels Bohr, who have undeniably changed (and improved) our understanding of electromagnetism and atomic physics.

Also last week, there was an interesting article in the Department Newsletter. The article states that job security for hard science graduates (is) untouched by financial crisis. This also surprises me. Coming from Australia where these hard sciences constantly face budget cuts, which is compounded by plans to further cut A$2 billion from the whole university sector. Although, now that Julia Gillard is no longer prime minister, who knows if this plan will still go ahead or not.