Skip to main content

Stand up science

Last Friday at Oxford I had my first experience of contributing to a sort of stand up science - and it was great fun.

The event, in the hallowed halls of Oxford's Mathematical Institute was, in effect, part of a book tour for Ig Nobel Prize founder Marc Abrahams' new book This is Improbable. As this is a series of short articles it is quite difficult to do a talk about, so Abrahams has hit on a brilliant way of covering the topic. His book describes a whole host of the sort of whacky papers that make you laugh and then think - the kind of thing that typify the Ig Nobel prizes. And what Abrahams does is brings along a pile of the original papers, gives them out to guest speakers like me and then each of us is given 2 minutes to read snippets from the paper as a dramatic rendition.

It works surprisingly well - though some readers were better than others at what was a fairly frantic bit of preparation to make snippets from an academic paper seem entertaining. To add to the fun, after each reading the audience had the opportunity to question the reader about the details of a paper that they'd never seen before.

I chose a paper that studied the effects of wearing socks over your shoes on an icy pavement in New Zealand, a paper that luckily had a number of priceless phrases to quote. (I knew I'd do okay when the audience burst into laughter at the revelation that the experimenters had issued their test subjects with different coloured socks.) Others, I think, found the experience a little wearing. Marc Abrahams was standing alongside us and frequently had to prompt readers to stop breaking the rules by commenting on a paper rather than simply quoting it.

There was one heartstopping moment when one of the other readers, another science writer, who was presenting a paper about racial preference in choosing colour of cheese, was asked a question from the audience about whether the study covered people of mixed race. The science writer turned to the timekeeper on the stage and said something like 'You're mixed race, what do you think?' It felt horribly like one of those moments when someone says 'I didn't know you were pregnant,' to get the reply 'I'm not.'

Overall, though, brilliant fun. Click here for a review of the book/links to Amazon.


Popular posts from this blog

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star , where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods. In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is: Mediocre music Melodramatic plots Amateurishly hammy acting A forced and unpleasant singing style Ridiculously over-supported by public funds I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some ex

Is 5x3 the same as 3x5?

The Internet has gone mildly bonkers over a child in America who was marked down in a test because when asked to work out 5x3 by repeated addition he/she used 5+5+5 instead of 3+3+3+3+3. Those who support the teacher say that 5x3 means 'five lots of 3' where the complainants say that 'times' is commutative (reversible) so the distinction is meaningless as 5x3 and 3x5 are indistinguishable. It's certainly true that not all mathematical operations are commutative. I think we are all comfortable that 5-3 is not the same as 3-5.  However. This not true of multiplication (of numbers). And so if there is to be any distinction, it has to be in the use of English to interpret the 'x' sign. Unfortunately, even here there is no logical way of coming up with a definitive answer. I suspect most primary school teachers would expands 'times' as 'lots of' as mentioned above. So we get 5 x 3 as '5 lots of 3'. Unfortunately that only wor

Which idiot came up with percentage-based gradient signs

Rant warning: the contents of this post could sound like something produced by UKIP. I wish to make it clear that I do not in any way support or endorse that political party. In fact it gives me the creeps. Once upon a time, the signs for a steep hill on British roads displayed the gradient in a simple, easy-to-understand form. If the hill went up, say, one yard for every three yards forward it said '1 in 3'. Then some bureaucrat came along and decided that it would be a good idea to state the slope as a percentage. So now the sign for (say) a 1 in 10 slope says 10% (I think). That 'I think' is because the percentage-based slope is so unnatural. There are two ways we conventionally measure slopes. Either on X/Y coordiates (as in 1 in 4) or using degrees - say at a 15° angle. We don't measure them in percentages. It's easy to visualize a 1 in 3 slope, or a 30 degree angle. Much less obvious what a 33.333 recurring percent slope is. And what's a 100% slope