The Ig Nobel Tour of Improbable Research

I had a truly entertaining night after wandering along to the London leg of the Ig Nobel tour – where various scientist types are invited to give a short talk about some recent research which has landed them with the dubious distinction of being awarded an Ig Nobel prize.

Ig Nobel AwardsThe Ig Nobels are awarded each year for genuine scientific studies which first make you laugh (and boy did we laugh), and then think. Quite often, the topic is made even funnier by the pompous title granted to it in the formal write up.

The show was introduced by Marc Abrahams, who founded and still runs the event, and he gave us an overview and ran through the winners of this years awards.

Then the event was basically, each of the guests getting up and giving a short talk, followed by two questions from the audience. However, as entertaining as the talks were, they were livened up by the timekeeper.

Each talker is strictly limited to 5 minutes, and each minute a bell is run – and when the five minutes is up, an 8-year old girl, known as Miss Sweetie Poos walks across the stage and declares “please stop now, I’m bored” and repeats this until the speaker finally gives up.

The event was video’d – so presumably will be available as an online download eventually. I’d recommend it for a couple of hours of highly amusing entertainment – there is a YouTube channel with short video clips already available.

For me, I think the highlights of the evening were:

Fiona Barclay, a biochemist, collaborated with Theo Gray to assemble the world’s first periodic table table, which contains the actual elements displayed on the table – and she recounted the tale of tying to buy some Plutonium and finding, bizarrely that a homeopathic retailer in Covent Garden actually sells some. She went in and tried to buy it – and when asked what strength she wanted declared “the strongest”, which in hindsight for a homeopathic retailer is probably the wrong answer! Naturally, being homeopathic, the vial she left with contains basically nothing but water.

During the questions, your correspondent asked if “When seeking elements you have ever been into a Sushi bar…” the rest of my question be drowned out by laughter as everyone guessed where I was headed. In fact, only one question in the evening was even vaguely serious – part of the fun was trying to come up with amusing questions to match the fun on stage.

Oh, with quite remarkable timing, The Londoneer blog this very morning ran a short posting about a Periodic Table made up from cartoon characters.

I think of the scientists, the one who got the biggest round of applause is the now infamous Kees Moeliker, who won the 2003 Ig Nobel Biology Prize for documenting the first scientifically recorded case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck. That award got absolutely tons of media coverage as it is so utterly bizarre at first sight. However, as he recounted – following the award he has actually had a lot of correspondence from around the world and it seems that both homosexual, and heterosexual necrophilia is surprisingly commonplace.

He has a book out now based on the letters and hopes to have an English translation soon (memo, add to amazon shopping list). They even have a Dead Duck Day now, where much beer is drunk then they go to to the local Chinese for crispy duck supper.

The evening finished off with a talk about sword swallowing from Dan Meyer, who co-wrote a paper on the side-effects of the art – and is himself a sword swallower. After the talk, we were then entertained with several demonstrations of sword swallowing which was an unexpected delight to watch.

As a kid, I used to practice a fair bit of magic and did try to learn sword swallowing, but could never overcome the instinctive gag reflex when putting a metal spoon near the back of my mouth. I learnt last night that it actually takes years of practice to overcome that. I think I gave up after a couple of years and also didn’t practice often enough each day. Oh well.

Off on a tangent, when I was younger I used to really enjoy the early Paul Daniels show which ran in the 1980s and used to feature not just good magic, but also a lot of circus acts and feats of physical performance such as sword swallowing and the like. It was good old fashioned magic, and I do miss it frankly. I once saw him on stage at the height of his fame, and despite the weird stuff he did later – he is actually a remarkably good stage magician.

Back on topic, everyone who spoke last night were hugely entertaining – but the three I have singled out were for me the highlights. I can’t wait for next years event!

On a serious note, this is the sort of event which really should be broadcast on TV. It is not only good entertaining fun, but does sell the important message that science can be exciting and amusing – and that scientists are not all white jacket wearing dullards.

The Ig Nobel Tour of the UK is sponsored by theĀ British Science Association as part of theĀ National Science and Engineering Week, March 6-15, 2009.

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