With scientific accuracy Dan Meyer warms up the audience: “First I have to deal with my gag reflex, then flip my epiglottis, put my pharynx and gullet in one line and nudge my heart a little to the left.” Then he slowly lowers a 50 cm long solid steel sword down his throat. It is not the kind of thing you expect to happen in the Great Hall of the Sherfield Building of Imperial College. Equally surprising is the person who pulls back the sword when Meyer bends forward: Dr Brian Witcombe, a distinguished radiologist from Gloucester. It all becomes clear when Dr Witcombe tells us that in 2006 he and Dan Meyer, president of ‘Sword Swallowers Association International’, published a study ‘Sword Swallowing and its Side Effects’ in the highly acclaimed British Medical Journal. A year later, thanks to that paper, they won an Ig Nobel Prize – the much-coveted award that honours achievements that first make people laugh and then make them think.
The team of Witcombe and Meyer are one of the highlights of this year’s Ig Nobel Tour of the UK. Together with Marc Abrahams, who organises the Ig Nobel prize ceremony every year at Harvard University, and several other Ig Nobel prize winners and other improbable researchers, they present their Ig-winning study during National Science and Engineering Week. I am part of the tour too, but – as a veteran – I am only allowed to speak one minute about my Ig-winning research. So I only wave briefly with my good old stuffed duck (it’s a rather famous, if dead, duck – the first scientifically documented victim of duck-on-duck homosexual necrophilia). I proceed with a maybe equally improbable talk about the rapid population decline of pubic lice due to widespread habitat destruction, and explain my difficulties in obtaining specimens of the parasitic insect for the collection of the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam where I am curator. I honour the good doctors who, after months of search, supplied me with five fresh samples of Dutch pubic lice, and then ask the audience to come to me afterwards and donate some specimens from the declining British population before it is too late. Nobody shows up, unfortunately (that is the official story I am telling you, anyway), although the audience consists of 800 people, mostly in the sexually active age group.
Steve Grundlach, a now retired professor of sociology of Auburn University, Alabama won the 2004 Ig Nobel medicine prize for his study ‘The Effect of Country Music on Suicide’. On stage professor Grundlach, with the appearance of the Marlboro Man, explains that in cities where country music prevails on the radio, the suicide rate among white males appeared to be much higher than elsewhere in the US. One specific song – ‘Whisky lullaby’ – was responsible for most suicides. To bad Steve did not sing it.
Erwin Kompanje from Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam presents to us some remarkable medical discoveries that are forgotten or purposely neglected by modern day medics, such as the first description, in the year 1627, of migraine aura without headache caused by strawberries. He also tells us about a remarkable penis-shortening device invented in 1593. When Dr Kompanje elaborates on the subject and mentions a similar device fabricated for a donkey, described by the 13th century poet Rumi, he exceeds his allotted five minutes. Then he is silenced by the London Miss Sweetie Poos – the cute 8-year old twins Anna and Franzeska McManus — who remind long-winded speakers that time is precious. The girls do this by persistently repeating the phrase ‘please stop, I’m bored, please stop, I’m bored’. Earlier that evening they had forced their father, Ig Nobel prize winner and UK-tour veteran professor Chris McManus, to end his talk on time.
[a shortened version of the piece was published in The Guardian, March 18th, 2008, titled ‘Life at the sharper end of research‘]