Science of hair nets Unilever physicist Ig Nobel Award
Boston - 21 September 2012: A Unilever physicist has been awarded a prestigious Ig Nobel science award at a ceremony in Boston, USA, for his role in developing the first mathematical understanding of the shape of a ponytail.
Dr Patrick Warren, based at Unilever's Research & Development laboratories in Port Sunlight, UK, was the co-author of the award-winning research published in Physical Review Letters which provided quantitative analysis of how hairs are distributed in a ponytail.
Dr Warren shares the Ig Nobel Award for Physics with his co-authors Professor Raymond Goldstein from the University of Cambridge and Professor Robin Ball from the University of Warwick, and with Professor Joe Keller of Stanford University who published an earlier paper on the dynamics of ponytails.
Equation describes ponytail shape
The group's research centred around a new "Ponytail Shape Equation", which took account of the stiffness of the hairs, the effects of gravity and the presence of the random curliness or waviness that is ubiquitous in human hair to model how a ponytail is likely to shape. Together with a new quantity described in the article as the Rapunzel Number, the equation can be used to predict the shape of any ponytail.
The research also provides new understanding of how a bundle is swelled by the outward pressure which arises from collisions between the component hairs. This has important implications for understanding the structure of not just ponytails, but many materials made up of random fibres, such as wool and fur. It will also have resonance with the computer graphics and animation industry, where the representation of hair has been a challenging problem.
Developing new haircare products
Dr Warren said: "It's a great honour to have been recognised for this project. While the science might sound a little off-beat, it actually has important everyday consequences for Unilever which has a major haircare business. By improving our understanding of how individual hair fibres interact, this research could one day help us to develop new products which offer people even better volume control."
Dr Warren joined Unilever in 1992 having completed a PhD in the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge and a post-doctoral position at the University of Edinburgh. He has 71 publications in peer-reviewed journals, with a total of over 4000 citations. In 1997 he co-authored with a colleague Rob Groot what has become Unilever’s most highly cited publication, on the dissipative particle dynamics simulation method, which has received over 1000 citations.
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