sealPurdue Science Briefs

January 1999

Goldberg contestants 'tee up' in 1999

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: Video and photographs of past contests are available. Journalists will not be allowed on the stage with the machines during the competition, but they are welcome on stage before and after the contest. Purdue will provide video and photo pool coverage and direct audio and video feeds. An ISDN line is available for radio interviews. Video b-roll, photos and a news release will be available the afternoon of the event. Satellite assistance is available. If you have questions, call Grady Jones, Purdue News Service, (765) 494-2079; e-mail,

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Purdue University students will be adding a new hazard to the game of golf in the 17th annual Rube Goldberg Machine Contest on Feb. 13.

The competition honors the late cartoonist Rube Goldberg, who specialized in drawing whimsical machines with complex mechanisms to perform simple tasks. Each year, Purdue students are challenged to build actual working machines that Goldberg himself might have dreamed up. The everyday task for 1999 is to tee up a golf ball. Previous contests have asked students to make a cup of coffee, put a stamp on an envelope and screw in a light bulb -- in 20 or more steps.

The event, which is free and open to the public, will be held at 11 a.m. in Purdue's Elliott Hall of Music. The winner of the competition will represent the university at the National Rube Goldberg Machine Contest, to be held at Purdue on April 10.

Students will build their machines by combining the principles of physics and engineering with common objects, such as marbles, mouse traps, bicycle gears, small kitchen appliances, rubber tubing and plenty of duct tape. The goal is to tee up a standard golf ball in a complicated and humorous fashion within a specific time limit. Each machine must run, be reset and run again in nine minutes. Points are taken off if students have to assist the machine once it's started. The teams also will be judged and awarded points based on the creative use of materials and use of related themes.

The local contest is organized by members of the Purdue chapter of Theta Tau, with support from industrial sponsor General Electric. It was first held at Purdue in 1949 and ran until 1955. The fraternity revived it in 1983 to celebrate National Engineers' Week, and the university has hosted the national contest since 1988.

Last year's campus contest was won by the Purdue student chapter of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers. Its machine was based on the theme "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" and used 26 complex steps and all manner of toy vehicles to turn off an alarm clock.

The national competition, which attracts teams from across the country, has been won the past two years by a team from the University of Texas, Austin. In addition to the Purdue contest winner and the Texas team, the 1998 national event also featured machines built by students at Oakland University, Rochester, Mich.; Hofstra University, Hempstead, N.Y.; the University of Wisconsin at Madison; and Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tenn.

CONTACT: Joe Martin, contest chairman, (765) 743-5276; e-mail,

Science and law team up on legal reform proposal

NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: Copies of the law review article are available from Purdue News Service.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- A Purdue University physicist and a political science professor have proposed an new way to reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits that are choking the court system.

In the American judicial system, plaintiffs and defendants almost always pay their own expenses, no matter which side wins the case. By contrast, most other countries operate under a variant of the "British rule," where the losing party pays the legal fees of the winning party.

"This 'cost-shifting' is a major factor in reducing the per capita litigation costs in Europe compared with the United States," says Ephraim Fischbach, professor of physics at Purdue. "But both systems have major drawbacks. While the American system does little to curb frivolous lawsuits, the British system works at a disadvantage to parties with fewer resources."

Fischbach and William McLauchlan, associate professor of political science, have come up with a new approach called reverse cost-shifting. The basic idea is that the losing party in a civil case pays the court a fine that is a multiple of its own expenses.

"The novel feature of reverse cost-shifting is that although it imposes a financial penalty on the losing party, the amount of the penalty is completely under control of the losing party," Fischbach says. "If you've got a frivolous case with little chance of winning, you'll think twice about initiating that case if you know you'll have to pay a penalty."

Fischbach and McLauchlan's proposal appears in the fall issue of the John Marshall Law Review, Vol. 32, issue No. 1.

Fischbach relied on mathematical equations and probability -- tools he normally reserves for his physics research -- to show the benefits of the reverse cost-shifting plan. For example, the proposal assumes that the probability of winning a case depends on the amount of money you spend.

While the court of opinion is still out on the idea, Fischbach and McLauchlan have gotten some positive feedback from judges, attorneys and the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee.

McLauchlan says: "This system effectively tilts the legal playing field in favor of the party with the more meritorious case, regardless of whether that party is big or small, plaintiff or defendant. Also, because the penalty is paid directly to the court, parties who actually use the court system would be paying for it, reducing the tax burden on the general public."

CONTACTS: Fischbach, (765) 494-5506; e-mail,; McLauchlan, (765) 494-4171; e-mail,

Compiled by Susan Gaidos, (765) 494-2081; e-mail,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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