Taking the plunge for science wins Ig Nobel Award

Chemical engineering and materials science professor Ed Cussler (left) and his former student Brian Gettelfinger (ChemE '04) have joined the immortal ranks of scientists whose work tickles the funny bone while making a serious scientific point. In a ceremony at Harvard University October 6, the two researchers received the Ig Noble Prize in Chemistry for a fluid-mechanics experiment they conducted in August 2003 at a Cooke Hall pool. Cussler and Gettelfinger collected their award wearing swimming attire.

Awarded at the same time and generally in the same fields as the real Nobel Prize, the "Igs" celebrate research that both amuses and enlightens. The tongue-in-cheek Ig awards ceremony is staged annually by the Annals of Improbable Research, a publication dedicated to scientific humor.

Cussler and Gettelfinger set out to find the answer to a question that has long intrigued scientists and swimmers: What effect does the viscosity of a fluid medium have on the speed of a body traveling through it? Cussler had been thinking about the problem for years, and his scientific curiosity finally compelled him to design the experiment.

After securing necessary permissions and recruiting University swimmers to be volunteer field researchers, the two filled the pool with guar gum, a food-thickening agent. The volunteers swam timed laps in the goop and then in a control pool. Results showed no significant difference in the swimming speed in the treated pool compared to ordinary water.

The only expense incurred during the no-frills experiment was the cost of the guar, which Cussler bought with consulting fees.