Ignite Dublin #8: Cats, elephants & booze

Diverse talks, interesting ideas and fascinating stories were part of a brilliant event that took place in the Science Gallery for the 8th time last night. Ignite Dublin brings science and humanities together and I learn so much every time I attend. Last night was no exception and there was a great array of topics from both Ignite regulars and new speakers. The format of the talks is the key to Ignite’s success. Each talk is 5 minutes long with slides automatically changing every 15 seconds. The result is public speaking at its best! It started in Seattle in 2006 and since then has gone global with the first Ignite Dublin taking place in 2009. I was one of the new speakers at Ignite Dublin #8 and was delighted to be included in the line-up.

I’m not going to write about my own talk (Protein Shake-Up) but once it’s online I’ll post it and include some extra information. Speaking at Ignite is certainly a practiced skill. A lot of work goes into the preparation of that short talk! Being concise is the first challenge and once that is achieved, finding images and text to match your talk is the next milestone. The most difficult bit for me was trying to get the timings right so my talk aligned to the slides. All that sounds like a lot of work but it’s a challenge that I’m thrilled I accepted. Enough about me… below are a few of my highlights of the evening.

My favourite talk was Drag (a story told through cats) by David McKeown (left) of the Irish Robotics Club. This clever talk was executed to perfection. It told the story of a journal article about cats “falling” out of tall buildings. It turns out that the 6th floor is the worst floor for cats to take a tumble from. Drag kicks in to counteract gravity on floors above this making cats a bit more relaxed during their fall. David pondered on the effects of drag on large cats versus kittens and Sphynx versus extra hairy. If you’re ever doing an Ignite talk in the future, have a look at this for some tips!

Statistics is not everyone’s favourite subject but Michael Madden did a great job explaining probabilities. He posed the question that  if you received a positive test result that was 99% accurate, would you be likely to have the disease. When you do the maths this is not the case. You have a much greater chance of receiving a false positive result. Michael went on explain Bayes theorem using the likelihood of getting killed by a cow versus a shark as an example. Cow infested fields turn out to be more dangerous than shark infested waters! His slides really opened my eyes up to our often skewed perception of risk.

Declan Moore’s talk on Ancient Booze was most memorable for his suggestion that people did not take up farming to make bread. Instead he proposed that hunter gatherers took up farming to produce beer. This and many other beer filled historical facts led him to the conclusion that beer has always been the centre of our lives. Without beer, modern civilisation as we know it may not exist!

Mary Mulvihill of Ingenious Ireland told a story of an elephant dissection that happened in Dublin in the 17th Century. An unfortunate elephant on show in a street near the Science Gallery was burnt to death. A physician, Dr. Mullen decided to dissect it and recruited local butchers to help out. Mary proposes that this is the dawn of science in Ireland as not only did Dr. Mullen dissect the elephant but he measured everything. His book which details the dissection goes down in history as the first account of the elephant not having a pleural cavity (linked to their ability to snorkel while in water): “ere so joyned that there was not one place where you might see a natural separation of them…contrary to what I ever observed in other Quadrupeds”. I loved this talk and it inspired me to look up Dr. Mullen’s fascinating book when I got home (available free online via Google Books).

Towards the end of the evening Shirley Temple Bar gave her satire-filled talk Influences about how Disney princesses are such “good” role models. Snow White, Little Mermaid and Cinderella all got a mention. I’ll never think of Beauty and the Beast in the same way again (Stockholm Syndrome!).

There are so many more talks that I loved last night including poetry about everyday life (Kate Dempsey), measuring the speed of light in a microwave using easi-singles (David Malone) and an amazing project empowering communities around Ireland to document their graveyards (Finn Delaney). The evening ended to the sound of Ireland’s only Japanese drumming ensemble, Taiseiyo Taiko. I hadn’t experienced that kind of performance before and was blown away. I now want to become a Japanese drummer (Christmas present hint!).

This event takes a lot of organisation and so far this was masterminded by Conor Houghton who is leaving for adventures in Bristol. The Ignite regulars spoke for 15 seconds (Ignite style) and thanked Conor for his work in setting up and running such a successful series of talks. I’d like to add my thanks as since I discovered Ignite last June I’ve enjoyed it so much and feel privileged to have talked at the last Ignite event that Conor organised. Best of luck in Bristol!

Update: YouTube videos of all of the Ignite Dublin #8 talks are now online here.

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