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Swimming in goop nets researchers an Ig Nobel Prize
By determining that people swim just as fast in syrup as in water, Ed Cussler and Brian Gettelfinger beat out stiff competition for the tongue-in-cheek award
By Deane Morrison
Published on October 12, 2005
Except in your most questionable dreams, you will never find yourself swimming in a pool of snot. Or syrup. But if you did, your top speed would likely be close to whatever you can clock in a regular swimming pool. That natatorial nugget comes from an experiment by Ed Cussler, a professor of chemical engineering and materials science (CEMS)on the Twin Cities campus, and his former student Brian Gettelfinger. In August 2003 they filled a Cooke Hall pool with a syrupy concoction and timed male and female University swimmers to find out how a gooey medium would affect swimming speeds. In a ceremony at Harvard University Thursday night (October 6), the two were awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for their efforts, joining the immortal ranks of scientists whose work tickles the funny bone en route to making a serious scientific point.
The awards are given at the same time as the real Nobel Prizes and cover mostly the same fields. Cussler and Gettelfinger collected their Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry in swimming attire, sharing the stage with other scientists who had beaten out approximately 5,000 competitors.The tongue-in-cheek ceremony is staged annually by the folks at the Annals of Improbable Research, a publication devoted to scientific humor. The awards are given at the same time as the real Nobel Prizes and cover mostly the same fields. Cussler and Gettelfinger collected their Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry in swimming attire, sharing the stage with other scientists who had beaten out approximately 5,000 competitors. Prizes in other categories included: Peace: For a study of electrical activity in a brain cell of a locust as it watched highlights from the movie Star Wars; Medicine: For the invention of artificial testicles for dogs; Biology: For a study of odorous secretions of frogs; and Fluid Dynamics: For studies (we're not making this up) on the force with which defecating penguins expel their feces away from their nests. For a complete list of Ig Nobel winners, see the Annals of Improbable Research Web site. In designing their experiment, Cussler and Gettelfinger asked whether swimmers would be slowed by a gooier medium or whether such a medium would give swimmers something more solid to push against, thereby imparting more thrust. They filled the pool with diluted guar gum, a food-thickening agent. When the data were in, there was no significant difference in swimming speeds in the goo compared to ordinary water. (See "Check one item off the 'honey-do' list" to read about the original experiment.) Cussler explained the results with an equation that showed how moving to a gooier medium would slow down a small swimmer, such as a bacterial cell, but not something big like a person. For a bacterium to maintain speed, the important mechanism is keeping a smooth flow of fluid over its "body," he says. This is harder with goop. "But for humans, it doesn't matter," says Cussler. "When you're big, the important mechanism is just pushing water out of the way." That can be done as well with syrup as with pure water. Cussler and Gettelfinger, who is now a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, published their work in the American Institute of Chemical Engineers journal in October 2004. Perhaps one ought not to be surprised that an Ig Nobel arose from a department such as CEMS, which brims with faculty who attend each other's lectures, share ideas, and generally enjoy the life scientific. This culture of cross-fertilization, a longstanding tradition in Amundson Hall, has helped mold CEMS into one of the top departments in the world. U.S. News & World Report currently ranks its graduate chemical engineering program first in the nation (in a tie with MIT) and its undergraduate program second. Its materials science program is also highly ranked nationally. The Ig Nobel prize "is long overdue with Cussler," says department head Frank Bates. Among previous projects, Cussler once outfitted his wife's dog with artificial gills and kept it in an enclosed chamber in a swimming pool for a couple of hours. The gills used numerous nanoporous fibers to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide between the pool water and the dog's breath. In the future, if he had time, Cussler says he would like to invent a two-component fiber that would coil up in high humidity and straighten out--thereby taking up more space--when the humidity fell. "You could put it in a parka," he says. "As it got colder [and less humid], the parka would get thicker. When wet, it would be compressed." In his day job, Cussler is an expert on distillation who has found ways to purify drugs, gases and water, among other things. An avid runner, swimmer and cyclist, he is also a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a distinction currently held by only 2,340 engineers in the United States and abroad, including six of his CEMS colleagues.