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Beer Foam Physics (video)
October 11, 2002

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Interviewees: Arnd Leike, University of Munich; Dudley Herschbach, Harvard University.

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Produced by Ann Marie Cunningham

Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc., with additional footage from NASA.

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This week, a few scientists won the Nobel Prize for outstanding discoveries.

And as this ScienCentral News video reports, some others won the Ig Nobel prize for research that’s… highly unusual.


A German physicist won applause at Harvard for studying beer foam. Although his work sounds silly, he found a way to illustrate a law that applies to daily life, and to the farthest reaches of the cosmos.

Every October, a week before the Nobel Prizes are announced to honor key scientific discoveries, several Nobel Laureates hand out the Ig Nobel Prizes for results that “cannot or should not be reproduced.” Some winners actually have lobbied to be awarded an Ig, but that doesn’t mean it’s all a big joke. All the prizewinning science has been published in reputable journals, and one Ig Nobel winner is rumored to be on the short-list for a Nobel.

The Ig Nobels were launched 12 years ago by the Annals of Improbable Research, a bimonthly magazine devoted to skewering “inflated research and personalities.” Each year, winners travel from all over the world at their own expense to Harvard University, where they are presented with the coveted Ig Nobel Prize at a very popular evening of music and skits that spoof the annual Nobel ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden.

This year’s Ig Nobel Prize for Physics went to Arnd Leike of the University of Munich (home to the annual Oktoberfest and a great deal of beer foam) for his paper, Demonstration of the exponential decay law using beer froth. Throughout the scientific community, foam is the subject of a great deal of study for many purposes. For example, foam was used to decontaminate Congressional offices after last year’s anthrax scare. Sidney Perkowitz’s book, Universal Foam: Exploring the Science of Nature’s Most Mysterious Substance, provides an excellent overview. A more scholarly study is The Physics of Foam, by D.L. Weaire et al.

Nobel Laureate Dudley Herschbach is a regular presenter at the Ig Nobels and the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University. Herschbach helps oversee the magazine Science News, and is committed to furthering public understanding of and enthusiasm for science. “The joy of science,” he says, “is that you can learn something and have fun, too. The Ig Nobels present that spirit very well.” He points out that black holes decay in the same way beer foam does. Cosmologist Stephen Hawking’s Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays, describes the life cycle of black holes in detail.

Herschbach also points out that beer foam is an excellent example of a fractal, a mathematical tool that shows order in what seems to be chaos. And he jokes that another example of a fractal is the coast of Maine, which boasts as many irregularities as beer foam: “The length depends on whether you measure it on a map with a ruler, or whether you bicycle along it.”

by Ann Marie Cunningham

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