March 29th, 2015
Every year in December, the Swedish Academy of Sciences hands out Nobel Prizes for the most important discoveries in science. A few months before, in less grand circumstances, the magazine Annals of Improbable Research awards the lg Nobel Prizes.
The Ig Nobels are given to research that ‘first makes people laugh, and then makes them think’. The categories vary year to year but mostly cover science and engineering, with peace and literature occasionally thrown in, too. Previous awards have been handed out to projects like minimizing the risk of colonoscopy patients exploding (medicine prize), discovering why people’s hair turned green in a small Swedish town (chemistry prize) and issuing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports (literature prize).
Despite the humorous aspect of these proceedings, the Ig Nobel Prizes are usually proudly accepted by their recipients, many of whom attend the annual ceremony and are often joined by previous Nobel Prize winners.
The 2013 Ig Nobel Physics Prize went to five researchers from Europe: Alberto Minetti, Yuri Ivanenko, Germana Cappellini, Nadia Dominici and Francesco Lacquaniti, for ‘discovering that some people would be physically capable of running across the surface of a pond—if those people and that pond were on the moon’.
Humans can’t walk on liquid water (with perhaps one famous exception) because we are too heavy and break the surface tension of the water. One other option would be hydroplaning, meaning pushing our feet down onto the water’s surface faster than the water can escape. Estimates say we would need to reach speeds over 65 miles per hour for this to work.
Minetti and his colleagues asked whether we could do better with reduced gravity to make us lighter. In their experiments, volunteers were suspended in a harness above a pool of water that the prize’s organizer, Marc Abrahams, called an ‘enormously goofy kind of slapstick engineering’. The setup let the researchers mimic different gravitational strengths, ranging from 10 to 25% of that on Earth.
At 10% of Earth’s gravity, all the volunteers managed to run on water, but as gravity increased, more of the participants sunk. The highest gravitational strength at which volunteers could successfully walk on water was 22% of Earth’s gravity.
The results suggest that we could walk on water on Pluto (7% of Earth’s gravity) and, some of us, on the moon (17%), although we’d have other gravity-related problems venturing out there. Gravity on all the other planets in our solar system is above 22% of the Earth’s.
But the research does have a serious side. Minetti said: “A serious implication is to stimulate thinking about the discrepancy between the (relatively fast) timing of space exploration and the long-lasting evolution that would be required to adapt actual living beings to locomote in different gravity environments.”
Photo: Flickr, FrogStarB
Alberto E. Minetti, Yuri P. Ivanenko, Germana Cappellini, Nadia Dominici, Francesco Lacquaniti (2012). Humans Running in Place on Water at Simulated Reduced Gravity PLoS ONE DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0037300
J. W. Glasheen, T. A. McMahon (1996). A hydrodynamic model of locomotion in Basilisk Lizards (Basiliscus Basiliscus) Nature DOI: 10.1038/380340a0
walk on water, moon, Ig Nobel Prize, Swedish Academy of Sciences, 2013, gravity, Pluto