Science Interviews

Interview

Sun, 9th Mar 2008

The Ig Nobel Prizes

Marc Abrahams

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Chris - The Ig Nobel prizes honour achievements that make people first laugh and then think.  The prizes are meant to celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative and also to spur people's interest in science, medicine and technology.  As one major journal has put it, they come with little cash but much cache.  The guy who sorted it all out and got it going is Marc Abrahams.  So Marc, why did you start this?

Marc - Let me correct something first, "they come with little cash."  They come with no cash.

Chris - Ok.  Fair enough.  Why did you get it going?  What was the idea?

An Ig Nobel Prize Winning Levitating FrogMarc - I had become the editor of a science journal and I had discovered that when you edit a science journal, I'm sure that Mark [Peplow] has the same thing, suddenly all kinds of people get in touch with you.  They tell you about the wonderful things they've done.  Some of those things are wonderful, some aren't.  You know that most of these people, no matter what they do will never ever get any recognition from anybody.  I kept running into people who had done things that were funny and interesting.  It seemed a shame that nobody would ever know about it.  That, more or less, is why we started the Ig Nobels.

Chris - The point about the Naked Scientists is we try and have fun with science.  Because at the end of the day if people are impressed as well as amused they'll tend to remember and also listen harder, I think.

Marc - Yeah, I don't think there's too much reason to try to bore people. I've never heard of people arguing that.

Chris - Let's look at some of the things you've got on your tour and past prizes. I love the one about country music.

Marc - Yeah, we'll be doing some shows in London, a couple of shows in London this week and then in Newcastle on Friday. There is a professor Marc A Gundlack from Alabama who, with a colleague, did a study about the effects of country music on suicide.

Chris - And?

Marc - He found there may be some effects of country music on suicide!

Chris - Does it prevent or does it encourage suicide?

Marc - Well, the numbers are about ten years old so as to what would happen right now which I think is what you're really getting at no one can say. What he found was that in cities that played a lot of country music on the radio the suicide rates were a little bit higher.

Chris - By all accounts, there is a very popular country show on this radio station and it certainly does very well. It's thriving and gets lots of calls so the audience are certainly not dead.

Marc - No one's tried to sue you yet ..

Chris - Not me personally! Is it people who are listening to the show who are writing themselves out a death wish or is it people who incidentally bump into country music and aren't habituated?

Marc - There is an effect, it's on people listening to music. It's not on people who don't listen to music.

Chris - There's an interesting thing in Question of the Week, this week. If you cut hair does it grow more? There's this idea that if you cut hair, and my wife worries about this, that if she shaves her legs they'll get more hairy. Are people worried about pubic lice?

Marc - Of course people are worried about pubic lice. As soon as you mention it people get worried. One of the people of note is Kees Moeliker from the Netherlands. He's the guy who won the Ig Nobel prize a few years ago. He's an ornithologist. He won his prize because he documented the first known case of homosexual necrophilia in the Mallard duck. That's not why he's here this year. This year he's going to talk about a study done at Leeds by two doctors who said that in the past ten years the incidences of pubic lice in Britain have just fallen. It's almost in viro. The question is why? They have a theory. Their theory is that this is exactly the same time period when we saw a rise in popularity of that hairstyle known as the Brazilian.

Chris - So it's just the absence of a suitable environment.

Marc - Yes, that's well-put.

Chris - So you can see the correlate of that in Nature all the time. If you cut trees down do you have any bears?

Marc - This has yet to be proven and Kees is touring Britain partly because he's te curator of a Natural History Museum. Here we have a report of an imminently endangered species and he's asking that anybody who has a sample, a living sample of human lice, please come to the show as he would love to collect it and take it to the museum.

Chris - The problem is, how are you going to conserve them because they only really like living on us?

Marc - One step at a time here. First you get the specimens while they're still alive.

Chris - Then you look for suitable hosts?

Marc - Could be irritant.

Chris - One person we had on the programme about a year or so ago was Clare Rind. She's a researcher at Newcastle. She came to you guys' attention, the Ig Nobel prizes because she showed locusts Star Wars and monitored their brain activity.

Marc - This is true. She and her colleague, Peter Simmons, monitored the activity of one brain cell of a locust while they had that locust strapped down and watching selected scenes from Star Wars. The scenes they were watching were in the original Star Wars movie if you remember the fighters diving to the trough inside the Death Star. What they were wondering about was locusts typically are in swarm s: tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions but they seem not to collide very often. They were wondering what's going on inside the brain of a locust that helps prevent these collisions.

Chris - They did actually get quite a lot of interesting answers out, didn't they? What they're now saying is that they could apply the neurological version of that to a robot.

Marc - I believe they also got some funding from one of the large automobile manufacturers, too, who are also interested in preventing collisions. Although, they don't care that much about locusts.

Chris - Could come in handy on the roads in the UK which are hopelessly overcrowded. Marc Abrahams, thank you very much. Just tell us so that people can come along if they want to; where are the next set of shows and how do they find out more if they want to come and see your shows?

Marc - The schedule is on www.improbable.com. The shows are Tuesday night at Imperial College, Wednesday night at The Guardian's museum on Faringdon Rd. Then on Friday night in the Life Centre in Newcastle.

Chris - And they'll basically get yourself..?

Marc - Oh, a whole bunch of people. Ourselves and the Ig Nobel prize winners and there are free events too.

Chris - If someone wants to nominate someone?

Marc - Oh, please do! We're always collecting nominations. That's one of the best parts of the tour is people come up afterwards with things they've discovered or people they know.

Chris - Marc, thank you very much.

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