Friday, March 30, 2007

Improbable Research at Portsmouth

I recently attended a remarkable event: an Improbable Research evening at The University of Portsmouth, as part of National Science and Engineering Week. (Although, improbably enough, it was organised by the Business School.)

The event (see the video) was designed to showcase “research that makes people LAUGH, and then THINK.” Marc Abrahams, editor of the world renowned journal 'The Annals of Improbable Research' and newsletter MiniAir (available in the Alternative Library Roof Garden) told us about some fascinating IgNobel Prize winners.

The competition for the IgNobel Prize for Literature seems to be particularly keen and has produced some world class work. In 1999 it was won by the BSI for what The Guardian called "the hot, steamy prose" of BS 6008: Method for Preparation of a Liquor of Tea for Use in Sensory Tests. Daniel Oppenheimer of Princeton University won it in 2006 for his report "Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly."

Howard Stapleton of Merthyr Tydfil, who won the IgNobel Peace Prize last year, deserves a special mention for inventing an electro-mechanical teenager repellant.

The evening also featured a live performance of Atom and Eve: a mini-opera in four acts, the Great Inertia Debates (of which ‘yes v. no’ was probably the most hotly contested) and five minute presentations by previous IgNobel Prize winners in person.

John Hoyland, creator of the Feedback column in The New Scientist, provided statistical evidence of the dangers posed by tea cosies, while C.W. Moeliker, (see his tour diary) of Natuurhistorisch Museum Rotterdam, who won his IgNobel Prize for Biology in 2003 for documenting the first scientifically recorded case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck, also introduced us to the 'Domino Sparrow'.

This bird became famous by flying in through a window and knocking over 23,000 dominos just a few days before a grand domino-toppling event, which was to be televised live in 11 countries. The unfortunate bird was shot, stuffed, and now forms part of a collection of famous sparrows, along with the almost equally well-known 'Cricket Sparrow', killed by a cricket ball at Lord’s in 1936.

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