UCSB mechanical engineering assistant professor Rouslan Krechetnikov was selected for the 2012 Ig Nobel Prize for studying the physics behind “coffee sloshing” during the 22nd annual award ceremony at Harvard University on Sept. 20.
The award, given out by the publishers of science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research, seeks to recognize research that is simultaneously amusing and thought-provoking. Krechetnikov’s work focuses on the humbling battle between coffee-drinker and mug contents and offers new insight into humanity’s trouble with receptacles.
According to third-year mechanical engineering graduate student Hans Mayer, a member of the Krechetnikov Fluid Physics Lab, the idea was born when two active minds made the most of a meeting’s tedium.
“We were at a conference — a very boring conference — and whenever you’re at these conferences, there are always these coffee breaks where you get these tiny ceramic mugs. We noticed a lot of people spilling coffee. The idea originated as a short study that we could do for another conference later in the year,” Krechetnikov said. “… We just wanted to make a fun presentation.” The results revealed that people often spill coffee either from accelerating too much or because the size of the coffee cup is too small. Krechetnikov’s research has been featured on ABC, NPR, MSNBC and the Scientific American. Mayer said he is not surprised at the amount of publicity the research has generated.
“It has gotten a large response,” Mayer said. “It is an accessible project. Everyone spills coffee.”
Ig Nobel Prizes were also given for research on diverse topics such as the balance of forces that shape and move hair in a ponytail and how to minimize the chances of a patient exploding during a colonoscopy.
According to mechanical engineering Department Chair Kimberly Turner, the Ig Nobel Prize shows students how applicable engineering is to everyday life.
“I hope that [the award] allows more people to understand that engineering touches everything,” Turner said. “From understanding why coffee spills to building an explosives detection system to keep soldiers safe, the mechanical engineering field is incredibly broad.”
According to Turner, the program maintains an impressive level of prestige while allowing professors full control of their research topics. “Our department has been recently ranked in the top 10 graduate programs by the National Research Council,” Turner said. “Professors can research whatever they can garner support for. That is one of the benefits of being an academic — you have the ability to study whatever interests you. If a professor can gain support for an idea, they can research it.”
Fourth-year mechanical engineering major Jenni Aye said the honor celebrates cutting- edge research as well as oft-overlooked examples of engineering in everyday life.
“I remembering hearing about this study from Hans [Mayer] and professor Krechetnikov,” Aye said. “The award may not be the most prestigious, but it [recognizes] interesting research, and I think it is a great way to get people more involved in engineering.”
According to Turner, the Ig Nobel Prize encourages researchers in all disciplines to take a closer look at the mechanics behind the seeminglymundane.
“We need to get the word out that sci- ence is fun and enlightening, and a better understanding of it will lead to a better life,” Turner said. “Engineering is science at work and touches most everything we do. Here, there is room in science and engineering for all types of thinkers, all types of learners — all you need is a healthy curiosity and a desire for understanding.”