Saturday, March 14, 2009

Now you may have heard of the Ig Nobel Awards, and thought, well, it's just a bunch of scientists wasting precious resources on incredibly inane research subjects, such as Kees Moeliker, curator of birds at the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam, and also the scientist who recorded the first scientific instance of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck. And, for the most part, you'd be right.

But that's precisely why the Ig Nobel Awards exist. They're meant for research that first "makes you laugh, and then makes you think" although what exactly you think is, of course, up to you.

On Thursday evening, I was one of the privileged few who managed to get tickets for the Ig Nobel Science Tour of the UK, with the London stop held at the hallowed grounds of the Imperial College. The two hour show was organised by Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, and consisted of ten speakers, seven of whom had won Ig Nobel Awards, with the remaining three mainly interested in quirky bits of science. Each speaker had a five minute time limit, with the timekeeper being a respected professor from Imperial, and Miss Sweetie-Poo, the eight-year-old little girl and time enforcer, who would go up to each speaker if they strayed and say, "Please stop, I'm bored" over and over again until they stopped.

My favourite speaker of the night, and the one whom I had come especially to see, was, of course, the duck man himself, Kees. And he was hilarious, in his very Dutch way, speaking about how he had come across the case which made him famous (suffice it to say it involved the museum building, which is made up almost entirely of glass, and a head-on collision involving said building and the unfortunate victim of necrophilia), other instances of necrophilia in the animal world (and one case of mistaken identity involving an elk and a bronze statue of a bison) and, finally, showing us the stuffed duck, which accompanies him on tour.

I also enjoyed Dan Meyer's presenation. Dan is the co-winner of the 2007 Ig Nobel Medicine Prize for a report published in the British Medical Journal entitled Sword-Swallowing and its Side-Effects, and he enlightened us with the penetrating insights he and his co-author discovered during the course of their cutting-edge research. Ah, I do love a good pun or two.
Following which - and much to my horror - he demonstrated the fine art of sword-swallowing four times, with each subsequent performance being more difficult, and, therefore, more dangerous. He even bowed to the audience while swallowing a sword half his height! Erk.

Other interesting speakers included Piers Barnes, winner of the Ig Nobel Award for Mathematics in 2006 for calculating the number of photographs one needs to take in order to ensure nobody in a group photo will have their eyes closed. Since then, he's taken his research further, and has now applied this to the probability of a mobile phone going off in a public event and came up with an inconsideracy factor for the human race of 0.12 (plus/minus 0.1). This factor is "a dimensionless constant" so I'm not sure what this tells us exactly, but, hey, that's an Ig Nobel for you!

I can't for the life of me recall how I came across this event, and I am so glad I did. Not only was the tour free, it even came with a free drink at the post-show reception where all and sundry could mingle with the speakers and speak to them about anything and everything. If I'm around next year - and I really do hope I am - I'll definitely return for the 2009 Tour.

And just so that I end off on an interesting note, did you know Singapore has an Ig Nobel Award for Psychology winner in Lee Kuan Yew? Apparently, he won in 1994 for work in researching "the psychology of negative reinforcement" by way of "his thirty-year study of the effects of punishing three million citizens of Singapore whenever they spat, chewed gum, or fed pigeons." Ha ha!

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