Sunday, 11 March 2012

An Ig Nobel but Wellcome Week

I've spent this week in the company of some truly extraordinary people.

It began on Tuesday when I visited the Wellcome Collection in Euston, London. This, if you don't know, is a free permanent exhibition of art, curios and historical objects that includes such things as the entire human genome printed out in book form, Napoleon's toothbrush, trepanned skulls and Florence Nightingale's moccasins. The overall theme is the development of medicine throughout history and it's a fascinating place to wander around.

But of far more interest to me was the Wellcome's library - the largest medical library in the world - and myself and several friends (who you'll meet shortly) were given an informative and fun tour by librarian Ross McFarlane. Medicine and well-being is a very broad area of study and I was surprised and delighted to see that the library has books on almost any related subject including nutrition, sexuality, various 'snake oil cures', voodoo and other forms of witch doctor magic. The books range from a beautifully preserved first edition of Mrs Beeton's cookbook to B R Burg's splendidly titled Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition.

The library is also the home of many important documents and we were privileged to be shown a few. One of these was the original handwritten diary of Robert McCormick (1800-1890), the official naturalist and surgeon aboard the Beagle during Charles Darwin's fateful visit to the Galapagos Islands (Darwin was there as a naturalist in an unofficial capacity). But the star item was this small, seemingly insignificant pencil sketch by Francis Crick (1916-2004):


Yes, it's the very first sketch of what Crick believed the DNA molecule to look like and, therefore, maybe one of the most important drawings in human history. It was quite something to see it there on a table in front of me and to feel that connection to history.

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. Marc had just flown in from the USA that morning but was surprisingly chipper and the enthusiasm he has for his creation was infectious.

The Igs, as they are affectionately known, began in 1991 and grew out of a magazine called The Annals of Improbable Research of which Marc is the editor. The magazine, and the annual prizes, celebrate research that 'makes you laugh and then think'. Ten Ig Nobel prizes are awarded annually at a ceremony at Harvard University in Massachusetts, USA, and are presented to the lucky winners by actual Nobel laureates. Previous winners have included research papers with titles such as: 'No Evidence Of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise (Geochelone carbonaria)', 'The Role of Auditory Cues in Modulating the Perceived Crispness and Staleness of Potato Chips', 'Locust brain activity while watching Star Wars' and the knowingly-titled 'Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.' You can watch previous awards shows on YouTube - here's the 2011 event.

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

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.

For example, in their sound labs they have a Reverberation Chamber and a Hemi-Anechoic Chamber; the first is an asymmetrical five-sided room in which echoes are massively prolonged (up to 30 seconds for a normal range of hearing) and the other is a slightly disturbing room in which all sound-reflective surfaces are removed meaning that it is eerily dead and silent. By having perfect acoustics, they can measure the sound absorbing or reflecting qualities of various objects and coverings. You can hear Stephen Fry' audioboo from inside each room here or watch the videobelow.

The NPL was where Barnes Wallis and colleagues worked out the angles and speeds needed to make the 'Dambuster' bouncing bombs work. And Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, worked here. His work card is on display in the foyer along with a beautiful 'Electron Tree' (actually a Lichtenberg fractal pattern) made by smashing subatomic particles into a sheet of perspex:

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 McFarlane (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, decision making when you need a wee, rectal foreign bodies, scrotal asymmetry in ancient sculpture, penguin pooping pressures, homosexual necrophilia in ducks, why mosquitos like Limburger cheese, and an eye-watering dissertation on how to free a trapped penis from a zipper - accompanied by mime. My own 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; vaginal douching with Cola is often used, particularly in developing countries, in the belief that it is an effective post-coital contraceptive. It's been going on since the 1950s but has only ever been supported as an effective measure by dubious anecdotes and 'Old Wives' Tales'. What the scientists wanted to know is whether it actually is effective 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.

Oh, and thanks to Mo McFarland and Quentin Cooper who informed me that the Fugs did a song called Coca-Cola Douche back in the 1960s. Here it is. NSFW!

My huge thanks to Ross McFarlane for the visit to the Wellcome and to Marc for asking me to be part of the Igs this year, and to everyone I met (including the splendid Tom Scott who was in the audience - I've known him for years but we'd never actually met before). I consider myself privileged and very lucky to have worked with such a warm, friendly, smart and extraordinary bunch of people.

Photo credits: Masks and DNA sketch - Wellcome Collection. All other photos are mine with the exception of the first three Imperial college Ig Nobel Prizes pics by Kate Gowers.

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