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Hanging with ...

Ig Nobel recipients

The world's quirkiest scientists mingle at a Brookline house party

Email|Print| Text size + By Carmen Nobel
Globe Correspondent / November 23, 2007

At other cocktail parties, guests might find it odd that Kees Moeliker is walking around with a dead duck. They might recoil when he explains that it had the role of victim in the first recorded case of homosexual necrophilia in a mallard. But Moeliker is among like-minded friends on this fall Saturday night, at a Brookline gathering honoring the recipients of the Ig Nobel Prizes.

A gentle parody of the Nobel Prizes, the Ig Nobels honor 10 achievements that "first make people laugh, and then make them think," says Marc Abrahams, editor of The Annals of Improbable Research magazine, which has awarded the prizes every October since 1991. After a media-packed ceremony at Harvard's Sanders Theatre and a lecture series at MIT, participants traditionally relax at a Saturday night social in the home of Jackie Baum and Stanley Eigen, science fans and friends of Abrahams.)

Moeliker's singular duck research won him the Ig Nobel prize for biology in 2003. Four years later the Dutch ornithologist is an Ig Nobel ambassador; he flies to Boston every year to meet and congratulate the new recipients.

"It's a wonderful, friendly, and warm group of people," he says. "It's a special week for me every year."

It's also a chance for him to visit the taxidermied duck, which Moeliker donated to the Harvard Museum of Natural History shortly after receiving his Ig Nobel prize. Harvard lets him borrow the bird for the festivities, but he returns it to the museum's archives before returning to Rotterdam. "With the concern about Avian Flu, it's hard to get a bird through airport security," he says.

As the party begins, Moeliker is perched in the corner of the dining room, talking about biology with two 2007 prize recipients. Brian Wansink, a food scientist at Cornell University, has been honored for a study in which he fooled subjects by feeding them self-refilling, bottomless bowls of soup. Biologist Diego Golombek has flown here from Argentina to receive the Ig Nobel prize for Aviation; he and a fellow scientist proved that Viagra aids jet lag in hamsters.

After laying the duck on a windowsill so he can sip a Heineken unencumbered, Moeliker tells the newbies about his latest project: He's collecting "famous dead birds" for his job as curator of the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam. The collection includes a sparrow killed by a cricket ball at Lord's Ground in 1936. (Moeliker tried but failed to secure the goldfinch that Rob Lowe accidentally slew with a golf ball last June.) He mentions a celebrated parrot named Alex, the subject of several studies at Harvard and Brandeis, who learned more than 100 words before dying unexpectedly in September.

"Do you have it?" Wansink says, referring to Alex's corpse.

"No," Moeliker says. "They're still in a period of mourning."

Later in the evening, host Eigan garners attention with a pointed question. "Who wants to learn to swallow a sword?"

The crowd gathers in the living room to enjoy the daring antics of Dan Meyer, a convivial man from Tennessee who sports a blond mullet and an iron gullet.

Meyer is the co-recipient of the 2007 Ig Nobel prize for Medicine; he helped author a medical report called, "Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects." As Moeliker brought his duck to the party, Meyer has brought a sword.

Meyer says he often begins demonstrations with a proof of authenticity, enlisting an audience member to examine the blade before he slides it down his throat. Tonight Meyer taps William Lipscomb. A protégé of Linus Pauling, Lipscomb is the one actual Nobel Laureate in the room; he won the 1976 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

Meyer proffers the sword, inviting Lipscomb to feel it. "You got the Nobel in chemistry," he says. "That's steel, right?" Lipscomb nods, and Meyer takes him a step further, telling the crowd that after swallowing the sword, he wants Lipscomb to pull it out.

Lipscomb declines. "At 87, I'm not as strong as I used to be," he says. Meyer backs down, gently. He swallows the sword anyway and lets a teenaged guest named Natasha Rosenberg remove it in Lipscomb's stead. Apparently emboldened by the display, Lipscomb eventually agrees to give it a try. (And now there's a YouTube video of Meyer backing his way out of a swallowed sword as Lipscomb grips the hilt at youtube.com/watch?v=m6ikGz4ZFEY)

"Have you thought of swallowing dead ducks?" Eigan says.

"I'll leave ducks to Kees," Meyer replies; Moeliker smiles.

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