Improbable Fun in Copenhagen

(April 1st, 2014) On its annual tour through Europe, the Ig Nobel show stopped over at Copenhagen University last week. Together with acting and past winners, Marc Abrahams did what he does best – first make people laugh, then think. Karin Lauschke reports.

Copenhagen was laughing and so was the rest of Denmark, Sweden and the UK - the “Improbables” are rolling over Europe and, wherever they have been, they left people thinking - seriously. "First you might laugh," said Mark Abrahams on stage in Copenhagen University's Ceremonial Hall on March 26th, "but the week after you will still be thinking about it, and the week after you will want to find your best friends and tell them about it."

Marc Abrahams is the inventor of the Ig Nobel Prize, an award honouring research that makes people first laugh and then think. For some awardees it might be the only “noble” award they ever get. Abrahams calls this kind of research “improbable research”. The annual show takes place at Harvard University and is a spectacle of its own. For several years, also European audiences can get into direct contact with improbability. The Ig Nobel Tour of Europe this year called at London, Leeds, Stockholm, Aarhus and Copenhagen. Abrahams doesn’t travel alone, he’s accompanied by some of the Ig Nobel Prize winners from last year.

More than 1,500 people registered for the tour in Denmark, sponsored and enhanced with free beer by Carlsbergs Mindelegat. In Copenhagen, the acting winners of the archaeology and medicine prize were the stars of the evening. And there was also a surprise guest, who spontaneously told us why his lab smelled like coconuts for weeks and how this helped the police to solve murder cases. Niels Lynnerup is a researcher in the Forensic Medicine department of the University of Copenhagen and therefore obligated to do "real research". So, what have real research and coconuts in common? You can use both to find out how to deduce, from a bashed skull, the weapon that has been used to bash it. But real research, in this case, needed two Master students, half a year of programming and the most powerful computer in Denmark running eight hours for a simulation. Coconuts, in this case, served as a solid-state real-time model of a skull and are "a bit cheaper and a bit quicker". And after destroying bunches of coconuts in the lab, Lynnerup found that "The fractioning patterns were similar” but “who would read a publication using coconuts as a model system?!" he wondered.

Curious like that it went on, with the first real Ig Nobel winner, Brian Crandall, who was honoured for his research on "Human digestive effects on a micromammalian skeleton". Basically, it meant swallowing, excreting and observing the remains of a parboiled shrew, without chewing (!!), to get to know “which bones would dissolve inside the human digestive system, and which bones would not”. Nice job, isn’t it? Crandall presented his results live on stage and together with people from the audience examined a piece of human excrements (see photo).

Past-time Ig Nobel winner (2003) and European Bureau Chief of the Annals of Improbable Research, Kees Moeliker, also brought his award-winning experiment with him: A dead duck in a plastic bag. "We got this new building, completely made of glass, and with the time I could even tell by the sound whether it was a finch or a merle that crashed into it," he told an amused audience. And then came the duck, ending its life with a loud bang at the glassy walls of the Natuurmuseum Rotterdam. A second duck, arriving at the scene, didn't seem to realise its partner was dead but interpreted its behaviour as a sexual offer and... you can imagine the rest. That both animals were male didn't surprise Kees Moeliker, "Like with humans, one out of 20 is homosexual. But it is the first case of homosexual necrophilia in ducks we have seen." So he published his observations and since then, receives photos of indecently behaving animals from all over the world - like a superstar receiving fan mail.

Then the evening became more decorous again, as one team member of this year’s winners in medicine, Masanori Niimi, showed how he probed the “effect of listening to opera, on heart transplant patients who are actually mice”. At last year's ceremony at Harvard, the Japanese research team dressed up extraordinarily for the occasion: They wore mice costumes and sang their thank you speech instead of talking too much (a petty offence, punished immediately by little Miss Sweetie Poo).

Most of the Ig Nobel prize winners enjoy the attention their research gets through the show. Others don't even realise they are doing something funny. This was the case with researchers in the UK, quizzing why ostriches didn`t want to mate on farms. "The farmers had real trouble breeding them," Abrahams told me backstage in Copenhagen. Why? Because the ostriches preferred humans as potential sexual partners - and stopped seeing their own kind as mates.

Until Abrahams called, in 2002, to tell them they won the Ig Nobel prize, they hadn’t even thought about how funny it is. "I privately offer the prize and they can decline it - no one will ever hear about the scurrility of their findings," Abrahams told me, "and that's ok but fortunately hardly anyone ever declines it." He has been doing this now for 24 years and still cannot stop looking for the unusual and imaginative, the odd and the funny. What he loves most is the feedback of the people. "Look at the faces in the audience," he says. And it’s true, no one is bored tonight. And Abrahams enjoys it even more. During the break, students come to see him and ask him questions like "has someone ever tried to cure a normal hiccup with an anal massage" – they still remember one of the 2006 Ig Nobel prize winners; the late Francis Fesmire found out the only cure for an untreatable hiccup is anal massage.

"In all the years, no one has ever asked this question. You can make thousands of people think and everyone will think differently." Isn't this what science is about? To fascinate, animate and inspire? Marc Abrahams wants to spread this way of thinking and show how funny science can be. The tour also celebrates the publication of Abrahams’ new book, "This Is Improbable Too", in which he collects the most improbable science stories. Published in March, it was already reviewed by the Daily Mail as "Almost dementedly inconsequential". Abrahams doesn’t take it too seriously and the audience throughout the Ig Nobel European tour prove him right: Everyone was leaving with a smile on the face, laughing - but thinking…

Karin Lauschke

Photos: Karin Lauschke

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