Nearly everyone has faced the frustration of a shower curtain billowing inwards to stick to one’s leg. Variousexplanations have been offered to explain the effect, but David Schmidt won the 2001 Ig Nobel Prize in Physics for a numerical simulation suggesting that the spray of droplets from the shower head drives a horizontal vortex whose axis of rotation is perpendicular to the shower curtain. Since vortices have a low-pressure region in their core, this weak shower vortex has the power to suck a light curtain inward, much to the chagrin of the shower’s occupant. Of course, a heavier or weighted shower curtain will help avoid the effect. This post is part of a series on fluids-related Ig Nobel Prizes. (Photo credit: W. Taylor; research credit: D. Schmidt)
Does a person swim faster in water or syrup? One expects the more viscous syrup would offer a swimmer greater resistance, but, at the same time, it could also provide more to push against. Gettelfinger and Cussler put this to a test experimentally with competitive and recreational swimmers in a pool of water and in one with a fluid measuring roughly twice the viscosity of water. Their results showed no significant change in swimming speed. When you consider that human swimming is highly turbulent, however, the result makes sense. In fluid dynamics, the dimensionless Reynolds number represents a ratio between inertial forces and viscous forces in a flow. The researchers estimate a Reynolds number of a typical human in water at 600,000, meaning that inertial effects far outweigh viscous effects. In this case, doubling the viscosity only reduces the Reynolds number by half, leaving it still well inside the turbulent range. Thus, swimming in syrup has little effect on humans. The Mythbusters also tackled this problem, with similar conclusions. This is a continuation of a series on fluids-related Ig Nobel Prizes. (Photo credit: Mythbusters/Discovery Channel; research credit: B. Gettelfinger and E. L. Cussler, winners of the 2005 Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry)
Back in 1999 Len Fisher earned an Ig Nobel Prize in Physics for explaining the physics of dunking a biscuit or cookie in a liquid. The cookie is porous, with many tiny, interconnecting channels run throughout it. When dipped in a liquid, capillary action pulls the fluid up into these channels against the force of gravity. As most people discover, this wetting can soften the cookie to the point of collapse. The optimal manner of dunking then is to hold the cookie at a shallow angle; this allows the lower surface to soak in milk (or the hot beverage of your choice) while keeping the upper surface dry and structurally sound. Fisher further argued that Washburn’s equation, which describes the time necessary for capillary action to draw a liquid up a given length of a cylindrical pore gives a good estimate of the length of time for a cookie dunking. This proved so popular he even wrote a book about it. This is a part of a series on fluids-related Ig Nobel Prizes. (Photo credit: C. Lindberg; research credit: L. Fisher)
While insects are small enough to use surface tension to stay atop water, larger species like the basilisk lizard run on water by slapping their feet against the surface hard enough to generate the force to stay above the surface. A. Minetti and colleagues won this year’s Ig Nobel Prize in Physics for demonstrating that humans, too, can achieve this feat - when outfitted with stiff, large area fins and exposed to gravity less than 22% of Earth’s. The researchers adapted a model for the running lizard to human scales and then tested the model using subjects suspended by harness and running in place atop a wading pool while subjected to various lighter-than-earth simulated gravities. Both the model and experiment agreed that human muscles were unable to produce sufficient force to stay above the water at higher than 0.22g. Interestingly, the authors also observed that the water-running gait for both lizards and humans has more in common with the pedaling motion of cycling than a human’s bouncing gait for terrestrial running. (Video credit: A. Minetti et al.)
Last night marked the 2013 Ig Nobel Prize Award Ceremony, in which researchers are honored for work that “makes people LAUGH and then THINK”. Historically, the field of fluid dynamics has been well-represented at the Ig Nobels with some 13 winners across the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, and—yes—Fluid Dynamics since the awards were introduced in 1991. This is in stark contrast to the awards’ more famous cousins, the Nobel Prizes.
This is not to suggest that no fluid dynamicist has done work worthy of a Nobel Prize. Ludwig Prandtl, for example, revolutionized fluid dynamics with the concept of the boundary layer (pdf) in 1904 but never received the Nobel Prize for it, perhaps because the committee shied from giving the award for an achievement in classical physics. General consensus among fluid dynamicists is that anyone who can prove a solution for turbulence using the Navier-Stokes equation will likely receive a Nobel Prize in addition to a Millennium Prize. In the meantime, we carry on investigating fluids not for the chance at glory, but for the joy and beauty of the subject. (Image credits: Improbable Research and Wikipedia)