Friday, 13 March 2009

Improbable though it may seem, Ig Nobel tour is hard to swallow

Dr. Ben Goldacre of has a theory (in fact he has many, of which this is but one). The theory is that modern society neglects its nerds at its own peril - that, as he eloquently explains whilst on the loo, by dumbing down coverage of science and medicine in the media we risk engendering apathy and disinterest in those who may no longer be professional scientists but who retain their nerd-like tendencies.

And so for one glorious night all this was put to one side as arguably the most nerdy geekathon came to town. Improbable research, that merry band of Americans who award the annual Ig Nobel prize, brought their show to Imperial College London last night in a 150-minute tour de force of laughs, cringes and bewildered applause. The Improbable mission is to publish
Research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.
And that's what we got in bundles at the show. We laughed when Marie-Christine Cadiergues explained how and why she conducted research into how fleas found on dogs jump higher and further than fleas found on cats. And then were made to think about how this reflects on flea biology. We chuckled at Prof. David Sims' take on how people get angry - entitled You Bastard, this paper makes you think about indignation and rage. And we shifted uncomfortably in our seats and laughed too as Kees Moeliker recounted his experience of homosexual necrophilia in ducks (which won him arguably the most famous Ig Nobel prize in recent years in 2003), and thought about just how this practice appears not to be restricted to ducks but occurs in many species of bird. Oh, and for added effect, he brought said duck with him which he had stuffed and preserved as part of his job at the Rotterdam Natuaral history Museum.

There was more: a dissection of why the nickname of the sore throat that accompanies peritonsillitis, 'hot potato voice' (which apparently clinicians in the UK use all the time) - is a misnomer, because the vocal frequency changes in the illness do not resemble those when you have a hot potato in your mouth. More potato-based action - an Oxford psychologist who showed that when eating crisps, the crispier the crisp sounds, the crisper the eater will rate it as. And a study of "scrotal asymmetry." Enough said.

There's a pattern of course - most of the research starts off as serious work, and is published in proper scientific journals - Nature in the case of the scrotal asymmetry. Yes the results may be silly, yest the experiments themselves may be bonkers, yet there's something edifying about the investigators themselves coming along and sharing their work, their passion, all for entertainment and scientific enlightenment.

Still, they saved the best (or at least the weirdest) till last. Dan Meyer, winner of the 2007 Ig Nobel Medicine prize came on stage, introduced as a sword swallower. And swallow swords he did - three of them, increasing in length. So far, so circus act. But this man truly must be unhinged, as he got members of the audience to extract the swords from his insides, firstly by just pulling the sword out and in the second case by yanking on an Indiana Jones-style whip attached to the hilt. To gasps of amazement he avoided dying with flying colours - a bizarre and somewhat sobering end to a superb night of entertainment and science - there you are Ben, the nerds are catered for.


CGR said...

Thanks for the great review, Teek. Almost as good as being there. Almost.

teekblog said...

@ CGR: cheers!

there may be a way of getting closer to the action, the even was filmed and will probably be on the improbable research website sometime soon...