The Improbable Research Lecture Tour 2007

I imagine that most of VCTB’s regular readers will have heard of the Ig Nobel Prizes. The Annals of Improbable Research is the magazine that sponsors them, a humerous science journal focussing on ‘science that makes you laugh, and then makes you think’.

The Improbable Research Lecture Tours are planned and compered by the creator of the Ig Nobels, Marc Abrahams. This year the UK branch of the tour came through Velcro City, and yours truly decided a night away from the computer screen would be a fine thing.

After a formal welcome from the Dean of Portsmouth Business School (whose lecture theatre the tour was using for the evening), Mr. Abrahams stepped forward to explain what the Ig Nobels are all about. They were founded in 1991, with 10 actual awards being granted each year to, as mentioned above, science papers that make people laugh, and then make them think. “What people choose to think, well, that’s up to them!”, he quipped.

Marc Abrahams - creator of the Ig Nobel prize

Prize winners receive a trophy made of the cheapest materials available (which appear to often include old shampoo bottles), a certificate signed by a genuine Nobel Laureate, and an invite to the winners ceremony at Harvard University – which looks to be even more irreverent and silly than the concept of the prize itself.

Prize winners in 2006 included the Welsh businessman who invented ‘The Mosquito‘ – the device for repelling teen ‘hoodies’ away from shops by using sound in a register only they can hear – and an American doctor who discovered that persistant hiccups can be cured by ‘digital rectal massage’ – yes, it means exactly what you think it does. Past winners have included the Japanese gentleman who orignally invented (but failed to patent) karaoke – the Peace Prize, for ‘opening up a whole new way for us to learn to tolerate one another’ – and the British Standards Institute, for producing an eight-page document that instructs in the ideal way to make a cup of tea.

After Marc Abrahams had talked us through the history and traditions of the Ig Nobels, the lecture had two main features: five minute talks by four guests, and a ‘science mini-opera’. The opera in question was called ‘Atom and Eve’ – a moving tale of the love between an oxygen atom and a beautiful young physicist – and was a curious blend of operatic vocals, cheap props and a ridiculous plot. Arguably the first and only time a Bose-Einstein condensate has appeared in a musical production.

'Atom and Eve' - Act 1

'Atom and Eve' - Act 3

Interspersed between the four acts of the opera were the speakers. First up was Caroline Richmond, a rum old girl who writes obituaries of famous doctors with colourful pasts. Next was Pek van Andel, a Dutch scientist who won an Ig Nobel for taking CAT scans of people having sex, and who offered his own body to medical science while still alive – for reasons that, thanks to the time limit enforced by an audience volunteer with a hotel desk bell, were not entirely clear.

Dr. Pek van Andel

Dr. van Andel was followed by John Hoyland, the journalist behind the Feedback Column in New Scientist magazine, who talked very rapidly about semiopathy – sympathy with signs that seem to mean more than they actually do – and nominative determinism – the phenomenon of people ending up in jobs or disciplines that are curiously appropriate to their names.

John Hoyland

Last but by no means least was another Dutchman, Kees Moeliker, a keen ornitholigist, who started a collection of famous dead sparrows at the museum where he is employed. It was also at this museum that he, by sheer accident, witnessed the only documented case of homosexual necrophilia in Mallard ducks – and he has the preserved duck victim to prove it.

Kees Moeliker

This was a fun evening out, and I’m glad I went. I was expecting a little more detail on the science side of things, but given the format I think that would have derailed the intent of the show – to make people laugh while sneaking some science in under the radar. Exactly how far this sort of thing goes to promote science as an educational or career choice is hard to ascertain – indeed, analysing it in such a way is probably pointless. Explaining a joke almost always renders the joke less funny – which, come to think of it, would make a potential Ig Nobel winning research remit.

A New Scientist columnist has also reviewed the tour (and supplied links to some of the prize-winning papers, too). You also can watch online videos of previous Ig Nobel award ceremonies (which to all intents and purposes appears to be an opportunity for grown scientists and academics to act like sugar-high children for an evening).

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