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.