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Steve Colgan’s insider’s peek at the Ig Nobel London events

Steve Colgan, one of the stars of the Ig Nobel UK Tour events in London and Teddington, prepared his insider’s look at both events and at some of the preparatory meetings. Full details, with lots of good photos are in his blog. Here are a few bits of it:

The other reason for me visiting the Wellcome Collection and Library was to meet several friends for lunch. These included James Harkin, head of research for the BBC TV show QI and Dan Schreiber, co-producer of QI’s sister show The Museum of Curiosity, which goes out on Radio 4. We were joined by Sid Rodrigues, organiser of the international Skeptics in the Pub movement, science writer and Guardian columnist Mo Costandi and Jonathan Webb from the Science Media Centre. We were there to meet Marc Abrahams to discuss the Ig Nobel Prizes UK Tour for which some of us would be speakers at the London events….

[this photo shows part of the Imperial College audience gathering before the show there. John Hoyland of New Scientist magazine is the man at the lower left:]

The UK tour this year included two London-based events, the first at Imperial College in Kensington and the second at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in Teddington. The Imperial College event took place in the 800-seater Great Hall of the Sherfield Building and was completely sold out. The speakers included Oxford University mathematician Mason Porter discussing his paper on synchronisation in cows, Ig Nobel winner Mirjam Tuk on her paper that explores improved decision-making when you have a full bladder, New Scientist magazine’s John Hoyland with some extracts from its ever-excellent Feedback pages, and myself talking about how police officers once used a form of cryptic hide-and-seek during the ‘dead’ hours on night duty (between 3am and 5am) as a memory aid to learning the fastest routes to various locations. [This photo shows Mirjam Tuk doing her talk:]

As a bonus we had Professor Andrew George from Imperial reading some terrible poetry by William Topaz McGonagall. A tremendously fun evening…

[This photo shows Professor George tormenting both the audience and himself with a reading of atrocious McGonagall poetry:]

The second event was the Ig Nobels After Dark on Saturday. This was held at the NPL and a few of us were lucky enough to have a tour of some of the laboratories beforehand. The NPL’s name is a little confusing and it was explained to us by our host, Andrew Hanson, that it would probably have been more appropriately named the National Measurement Laboratory as that’s what they do; they measure things….

[This photo is from the NPL tour — several of us in a hemi-anechoic chamber:]

Then it was on to the evening event where an eclectic mix of readers entertained the audience with extracts from a selection of obscure and unintentionally hilarious research papers. The readers were myself, James Harkin (QI writer), Dan Schreiber (Producer Museum of Curiosity), Ross McFarland (Wellcome Institute Library), Helen Keen (Comedy writer and performer), Stuart Clark (Astrophysicist and author), Chloe Kembery (Head of media relations Natural History Museum), Laurie Winkless (Higher research scientist National Physical Laboratory), Alasdair Kergon (Consulting Software Engineer, Red Hat Ltd), Alom Shaha (Science teacher and author), Helen Arney (Comedian and musician), Alok Jha(Author and Science Correspondent for The Guardian) and Ruchir Shah (Public Library of Science).

The subjects covered included fellatio in fruit bats, collapsing Glasgow toilets, why ovulating lap dancers get more tips, beetles that have sex with beer bottles,termination of intractable hiccups by digital rectal massage, and an eye-watering dissertation on how to free a trapped penis from a zipper – accompanied by mime. My reading was from a paper entitled ‘Spermicidal potency of Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola’ and is a perfect example of the kind of paper that attracts an Ig Nobel Prize. The paper, at first, seems rather silly; a bunch of scientists putting human sperm into different kinds of Cola to assess whether it affects the sperms’ motility and/or potency. However, there is a serious reason behind this; douching with Cola is used by women, particularly in developing countries, in the belief that it is an effective post-coital contraceptive and it’s been going on since the 1950s. What the scientists wanted to know is whether it is actually effective or not so that doctors, missionaries and health workers can best advise women about its efficacy. If you’re interested, Diet versions of the drinks are the most effective. However, it is not a good contraceptive as some sperm will be in the oviducts within seconds of ejaculation plus the act of douching and the gas in the Cola can actually push the sperm closer to the cervix. But it’s a wonderful example of what The Annals of Improbable Research and the Ig Nobels are all about – Research that makes people laugh and then think.

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