Fluid Dynamics and the Nobel Prize

Last night marked the 2013 Ig Nobel Prize Award Ceremony, in which researchers are honored for work that “makes people LAUGH and then THINK”. Historically, the field of fluid dynamics has been well-represented at the Ig Nobels with some 13 winners across the fields of Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, and–yes–Fluid Dynamics since the awards were introduced in 1991. This is in stark contrast to the awards’ more famous cousins, the Nobel Prizes.

Since the introduction of the Nobel Prize in 1901, only two of the Physics prizes have been fluids-related: the 1970 prize for discoveries in magnetohydrodynamics and the 1996 prize for the discovery of superfluidity in helium-3. Lord Rayleigh (a physicist whose name shows up here a lot) won a Nobel Prize in 1904, but not for his work in fluid dynamics. Another well-known Nobel laureate, Werner Heisenberg, actually began his career in fluid dynamics but quickly left it behind after his doctoral dissertation: “On the stability and turbulence of fluid flow.”

This is not to suggest that no fluid dynamicist has done work worthy of a Nobel Prize. Ludwig Prandtl, for example, revolutionized fluid dynamics with the concept of the boundary layer (pdf) in 1904 but never received the Nobel Prize for it, perhaps because the committee shied from giving the award for an achievement in classical physics. General consensus among fluid dynamicists is that anyone who can prove a solution for turbulence using the Navier-Stokes equation will likely receive a Nobel Prize in addition to a Millennium Prize. In the meantime, we carry on investigating fluids not for the chance at glory, but for the joy and beauty of the subject. (Image credits: Improbable Research and Wikipedia)

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