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Mar. 17, 2009

Geeks Just Want to Have Fun (Part II)

by Science Friday Education

By Alan S. Brown

I met Annals of Improbable Results editor Marc Abrahams at last year's AAAS, and found him very quiet, except for some incisive questions or comments. (He goes to plenty of scientific conferences every year, and is a sharp critic of scientists who claim more than their data warrants.) Until I saw him on stage, I had no idea that a comedic anarchist lurked beneath his placid exterior.

Take, for example, sword swallowing. In 2006 Dan Meyer and Brian Witcombe published their study, "Sword swallowing and its side effects” in BMJ, one of the world’s most distinguished medical journals. They surveyed 110 sword swallowers. Among their common ailments were sword throats (tell me you’re surprised), as well as the occasional perforation or severe hemorrhage “when swallowers used multiple or unusual swords or when a technical error was committed.”

Marc jumped on the research, and Meyer, who also heads the Sword Swallowers Association (of course), became a roadshow regular. He showed up in Chicago to gulp down a sword with breathtaking rapidity. A member of the audience then pulled it out. Several audience members moaned and said they couldn’t look, but every head remained fixed on Meyer.

Meyer is another example of an out-of-work musician who made good. He turned to sword swallowing because there was too much competition in his previous profession, fire-eating.

According to Meyer, sword swallowing in an ancient art with modern applications. A sword swallower helped renowned German physician Adolph Kussmaul by ingesting the first endoscope – an inflexible model – used to look into the stomach. Doctors did not always return the favor. Watching a sword swallower push 14 swords down his throat at once, a physician at New York’s Metropolitan Throat Clinic rushed to save him by pulling all the swords out at once. The resulting lacerations left put the sword swallower in the hospital for months.

An opera ran through between Ig Nobel presentations during the show. Set to music from Gilbert and Sullivan, it featured two singers from a local Chicago opera company. Marc’s libretto concerned the romance of a small oxygen atom with a much larger human scientist (complete with Erlenmeyer flask containing a mysterious green substance). Needless to say, after the lovers scaled the peaks of desire, they had to scale the scale barrier to achieve intimacy.

Both lovers had issues. To an atom, size matters. Indeed, it led to feelings of inadequacy (”Why, compared to a woman/I’m nothing at all”) and even fear (”Now, if she hyperventilates/She’ll cause my death”).

The scientist faced potential societal disapproval (”Could we combine?/Or would such love be forbidden?”) as well as practical problems (”Here’s a technical challenge/Now, how we will copulate?”)

The solution comes in the form of a Bose-Einstein condensate, in which atoms lose their individual identities and coalesce into a single “super-atom.” That solves the problem if you don’t mind the cold.

We heard about a shared Ig Noble, one for a Harvard team that showed Coke (but not Diet Coke) was an effective contraceptive, the other for a Taipei Medical University group that showed it was not.

Then there was the first recorded incidence of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard species. I won’t go into the details, other than to say that the researcher took notes for 75 minutes before taking a lunch break. You can watch the presentation on the most horribly funny video I’ve seen in years.

We also saw some terrific film clips. One showed what is arguably the world’s record for barbeque ignition, 2 seconds. We’ll never know for sure, though, because Guinness World Records refused to post the achievement. It informed the engineering team that it did not want to encourage anyone else to repeat the experiment, which involved lots of liquid oxygen. The first attempt to light the fire worked fine, though they had to wait for the grill to cool down before cooking anything. A second attempt melted a smaller grill.

Finally, let me tell you about kilosteve, the funniest tribute to Darwin at an AAAS meeting filled with 200th birthday accolades. It involves Project Steve, which had its genesis in ads published by creationists of 100 or so scientists who “doubt evolution” or “dissent from Darwinism.”

So the National Center for Science Education began a mocking campaign to sign up scientists who do believe in evolution. Since there were so many of them, they decided to limit signees to people whose names began with Steve. Steve and its conjugates (Stephanie, Esteban, Stefano, etc.) make up 1 percent of all U.S. names, so each Steve is worth 100 potential scientists.

At AAAS, Project Steve reached the kilosteve mark – equivalent to 100,000 potential scientific supporters of evolution and Darwin – with the addition of Steven Darwin, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Tulane University.

Now that sounds like a fix, doesn’t it? I mean, really – the 1000th Steven is named Darwin? I leaned over and asked NCSE director Eugenie Scott if this was mere coincidence. And yes, the group recruited him for the big moment. And there are actually 1,046 Steves on the list.

I could go on, but if you’ve gotten this far, isn’t time you got back to work? Geeks may want to have fun, but they also have to eat.

Of course, if you don’t want to get back to work, I would recommend Popular Mechanics’ compilation of favorite Ig Nobels, including a tank-like alarm clock that crawls away when you try to turn it off.

* This blog appears courtesy of Stevens Institute of Technology. You can find additional blogs from Alan S. Brown here.

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