Off to that bastion of learning that is Imperial College in London last night for the annual IgNobel tour – which is swiftly becoming one of my annual highlights.

For those who are not familiar with the IgNobels – they are named after the more sombre Nobel Prizes and are awarded to science that makes you laugh, then makes you think. More typically, its for science that has a real and serious purpose, but also managed to generate WTF style headlines in the tabloid press.

For example, the story which generated much mirth was the IgNobel prize winner for the team that, according to the newspapers at least, found that giving human names to cows resulted in their producing more milk. Actually, the science was more complex than that – but the headlines would have raised a bemused smile at many a breakfast table, and might possibly have caused some people to wonder why this happens.

They actually get around 7,000 submissions each year, and some come from the scientists themselves. The IgNobels are quite prestigious within the scientific community and “real” Nobel Laureates happily attend the awards ceremony to hand out the IgNobels.

Anyhow – accompanied by a friend, after arriving a bit early we went direct into the hall. I suspect that as almost no one else entered for half an hour, we may have snuck in before the “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” crowd control staff were put on the doors. Opps! The upside though is that we got to choose our seats, and I know from past experience that about half way up the hall is a row of seats with extra legroom compared to the rest of the hall. Such luxury!

As I go to a lot of lectures in lots of different buildings, I am slowly gaining a knowledge base of where to sit for best views, most comfort, proximity to toilets etc. Maybe I should write a guide-book?

The Show

Introduced, as usual by Marc Abrahams, who founded the event back in 1991, with a run through of the 2009 winners and then on to the show.

Each speaker gets five minutes to explain their research, with a human metronome banging a waste bin with a big stick after every minute. After five minutes, an eight-year old girl (last night, actually two twins) walks across the stage and says “Please Stop, I’m Bored” and repeats it until the speaker does indeed stop.

Two questions then from the audience – which are encouraged to be humorous in line with the tone of the evening.

The proceedings started with British researcher, Catherine Douglas who was part of a team who worked out that cows with names produce more milk than those without names. Actually, its more a case that farmers who are more attentive and caring to their cows have happier cows – and happy cows produce more milk. We humans find it easier to associate with animals if they have names, so a side-effect of more compassionate farming is that cows get given names.

This is not idle research though, as it makes a difference to the profitability of the farm, and even the most cold-hearted of farmer is going to be tempted to be more caring when faced with the chance to earn an extra £9,000 from each cow.

A questioner asked if there is any impact on the quality and nutritional value of the milk. No, as it happens.

So, go and hug a cow – it’s good for their health, if not necessarily of any benefit to ours.

The evening was also punctuated by spoof operas – which are a long running tradition of the main awards handed out in Harvard University each year. This did mean slightly fewer speakers this year compared to last, but it is an integral part of the IgNobel tradition.

Erwin Kompanje gave us a run through of previous research into whether reindeer can indeed have red glowing noses – and as the answer is NO, he begged us to stop singing that “awful” song each Christmas.

John Hoyland created and edits the Feedback column in New Scientist Magazine gave another swift run through of user submissions, including a brilliant expose of more necrophilia in animals, then onto another regular attendee, the sword-swallowing Dan Meyer, who picked up an IgNobel prize a few years ago for his research into the side-effects of swallowing swords.

He gave a lengthy run-through as to why people swallow swords, but an introduction into his more recent research into people who not just swallow swords, but actually eat them was cut short by Miss Sweetie Poos.

As last year, he gave a demonstration of sword swallowing – although the person sitting in front of me had to avert his eyes as he just couldn’t cope with what was going on – and when Dan gave a quite graphic medical description of what happens when he swallows swords, and the chap in front had to put fingers in his ears!

A woman who admitted to being sceptical about the authenticity of sword swallowing was invited to test a sword – then dragged up on stage. The poor woman looked not just mortified at being on stage, but as her role in the demonstration was explained, looked quite ill. I actually wondered if she was going to faint.

After swallowing a sword, Dan bowed, carefully to the audience, then faced the poor lady and she had to draw the sword out herself – which to her credit she managed, just.

One of the prize winners which gained some of the biggest news headlines was the Ukrainian doctor, now based in the USA who developed a face mask made from the cups of ladies bras. Elena Bodnar gave not only an explanation of the device, but pulled a few people up on to the stage, pulled out a couple of bras and demonstrated how the idea worked.

While I am fairly sure the idea of using bras as face masks is just a joke, the idea behind it is actually very serious. She wondered if common clothing could be used to help prevent people breathing in dangerous dust and gasses, and that her motivation was her time treating children following the Chernobyl disaster is quite a sombre thought.

A questioner asked though if this was actually just a right-wing plot as tree hugging hippies and unreconstructed feminists would be deprived of safety due to their disinclination to wear bras.

I did try asking two questions, but sadly was never selected – hey, it’s a big hall.

For the record:

I wanted to know if, based on the idea that talking to plants is beneficial to them, whether any research had been carried out as to milk yield impacts of playing pleasant music in fields to improve the quality of the grass the cows eat.

To the New Scientist editor, due to the rise in reports of animal necrophilia, I wanted to ask “is homosexual necrophilia in the animal kingdom fast becoming the new nominative determinism?”

If you read New Scientist, you’ll understand the question, and if you don’t, well, go out and buy a few dozen issues as you’ll quickly pick up the joke.

Overall, a damn fine night out – and long may the awards, and the tours continue.

The event was sponsored by The Graduate Schools at Imperial College London and The British Science Association as part of National Science and Engineering week.

They filmed the event and it should eventually end up on the ubiquitous YouTube website.

In the meantime, you can watch the 2009 show online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ag18_eJr4UQ.

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Whats's on in London: today or tomorrow or this weekend

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