Thursday: Whales & herring farts in Copenhagen

A special event in Copenhagen on Thursday, October 13, 7:00-9:00 pm, HCØ (Auditorium 4), Universitetsparken 5, 2100 København Ø:

Magnus Wahlberg, Ig Nobel Prize winner, Improbable Research’s Scandinavian Desk Chief, and Head of Research and Outreach, Adjunct Professor at Fjord & Bælt and University of Southern Denmark, will talk about whales and dolphins, which he is currently studying.

Then Magnus will tell about his work with the Swedish Navy to try to figure out what made all the underwater sounds detected in and classified as hostile Russian submarines in the 1980s. Elaborate analysis and experiments of many kinds proved that these sounds were not made by hostile underwater enemies but by farting herring. Herring is a common fish in the Baltic Sea and they can gather in schools of immense sizes. When air is released from many fish in such a school this can generate considerable noise. The fact that this noise for many years was classified as Russian submarines led to a diplomatic conflict between Sweden and Russia in 1994, as the prime minister of the time Carl Bildt (who is presently the foreign minister of Sweden) wrote an angry letter to Boris Yeltsin.

Magnus will also reveal how all this frantic government fish-fart-related activity could have been avoided if the Swedish Navy tacticians had studied the Swedish classics. Way back in 1914 Swedish author Ludvig Runeberg wrote in his masterpiece Bottenhavsfiskare (Bothnian Bay Fishermen, freely translated from Swedish):

“In the evening they were rowing away to the barren islands, pulled up the boats, lit a fire and made coffee, opened the dinner box and ate. While they were sitting there a group of fishermen were staring out towards the sea, the sun sinking, the sky turning red, and the waves smoothing, wind dying, moon sailing out, lonely and large, the ducks moving back and forth in trains, and in all this, which no longer looked like the earth but more seemed to be an advection into the sky, a distant boiling was seen on the blank water surface. Thousands and thousands of small blisterns glaring into the sea, without it being possible to say wherefrom they came, and only in one small defined place: it was the herring which was approaching them on its migration.”

The fish fart findings earned Magnus and colleague Haaken Westerberg the 2004 Ig Nobel prize in biology (they shared the prize with a group from Scotland and Canada, who independently did related research that involved herring farts but not imagined Soviet submarines).