A loving, applied mathematical tribute across a generation

L. Mahadevan, who was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize in physics for studying how sheets get wrinkled, wrote a loving tribute, a few months ago, to his teacher Joseph Keller [pictured here]. Keller is a two-time Ig Nobel Prize winner. The entire essay appears in SIAM News. Here are snippets:

kellerJoe Keller’s contributions to the mathematical sciences have led to many honors, including the National Medal of Science and the Wolf Prize for Mathematics… Last month, in the riotous ceremony that accompanies the annual awarding of the Ig Nobels, he was also recognized for his contributions to the funny sciences, twice (he may well be the first double winner). The first of his Ig Nobels corrected an omission (dating from 1999) for explaining the teapot effect and the second for work published in 2010 on the swaying of ponytails (shared with a group from the UK who calculated the shape of a ponytail). And what precisely were the prize-winning contributions?

Anyone who has poured tea from a kettle knows to be wary of the dribble along the spout that can ruin everything. Most scientists, asked to explain this effect, will mumble something about surface tension . . . NOT! Inspired by experiments of the rheologist Marcus Reiner (who poured colored tea underwater, where interfacial forces are unimportant but the effect persists), Keller wrote a note [2] about how inertial effects (and Bernoulli’s principle) can explain this phenomenon. Nearly 30 years later, with J.-M. Vanden-Broeck, he worked out a more complete theory [5,6], which was recognized by the 1999 Ig Nobel, though Keller’s contributions were inadvertently forgotten. In an interesting recent addendum, a group of scientists showed that by coating the spout with carbon black, they could change the wettability of the teapot and thence the effect, subtly modifying the role of inertia [1]—and showing that good problems never die! …

SIAM News has now published a letter written in response to that essay:

The 2012 Ig Nobel for Physics

To the Editor:

I read with great pleasure the article on Joseph B. Keller and the 2012 Ig Nobel for physics (SIAM News, December 2012). Keller is a man known for his intellect, creativity, and professional integrity (and a personal academic hero of mine). Readers may want to know that the 2012 Ig Nobel prize for physics was shared with Raymond E. Goldstein, Patrick B. Warren, and Robin C. Ball for a delightful paper on the shape of ponytails (Physical Review Letters, 2012). The 1999 Ig Nobel for physics was shared with Len Fisher for calculating the optimal way to dunk a biscuit. While it is certainly true that Wilkins won the Nobel prize for the determination of the structure of DNA in 1962, readers will appreciate the fact that it was shared with Watson and Crick.—Alain Goriely, University of Oxford.