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Curiously pleasant surprises: A Q & A with Ig Nobelist Marc Abrahams

Every September, Marc Abrahams dusts off his top hat, gathers up local Nobel prize winners and MCs science’s silliest night. This week, he’ll once again give out The IgNobel Awards. The winners are a closely held secret, but you can tune in to the Thursday webcast and be one of the first to know. Or, grab a ticket – if there are any left — and show up at Harvard’s Sanders Theater. And, if you need to get a bit more Iggy, check out Abraham’s new book — This Is Improbable Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens, and Other WTF Researcha collection of the columns from The Guardian.

One World Books photo

Q:  Has the term “What was I thinking?” ever entered your mind while you were standing  on the stage at the Ig Nobels?

No, because when the day arrives, we’ve been thinking long and hard (and who knows, maybe even well) about what might go wrong. The Ig Nobel ceremony is a complicated piece of engineering. We spend the year planning it, trying to foresee tiny and big fizzles (This is a la Murphy’s Law, the namers of which were awarded an Ig Nobel Prize in the year 2003, with Edward Murphy’s son coming to the ceremony to accept on his father’s behalf.) We can rehearse some of it (the new mini-opera about the universe, for example), and plan to deal with the most likely mishaps. But we don’t know what most of the parts are going to do – especially the ten new Ig Nobel winners arriving that day from various continents, and the bunch of Nobel laureates who will hand out the prizes. We have limited control over them. We also know there will be little surprises from the 1100 audience members, each of whom realizes full well that this is their supreme opportunity to show off, in public, their own personal 90/10% mix of genius/lunacy.

Q. What is your favorite momentously inconsequential skit, act  or performance from years past?

One of my favorites: Ten years or so ago, a famous — and much feared — university president had a bit part in the ceremony, giving a small, funny speech (30 seconds long, with a football referee standing next to him with a whistle to enforce the time limit). For most of the ceremony, this man sat on stage amongst the famous scientists and Ig Nobel winners, watching as everyone else had a grand time throwing paper airplanes. He of course was above such things. But eventually he couldn’t stand it. He picked up one — just one! — of the planes that had landed near him, and threw it into the audience. He spent the rest of the evening sitting bolt upright, trying to suppress an I’m-a-naughty-little-boy-and-proud-of-it grin.  

Q. Has anyone every turned down an Ig Nobel?

Our policy in most cases is to quietly offer the prize, giving people the opportunity to decline. Happily for us only a few turn it down. Most are at a vulnerable point in their career, working under a boss who would not welcome “frivolous” publicity. A very few others have turned it down with suppressed or unsuppressed rage, accompanied by the explanation that their work is too important to be amusing.

Q. Has anyone ever lobbied for one?

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, yes. Every year between ten and twenty percent of the thousands of nominations are self-nominations, either from the people themselves or from their institutions. Only a very few self-nominees have ever won an Ig Nobel Prize.

Q. What makes your book “addictive”?

  Maybe it’s the carbon. But that’s just a guess. This book is also out in e-book form, with no carbon, so I should be able to test that guess.

Q. You live in the US but write for a British newspaper. Do Brits get Iggy humor in a way that Yanks don’t?

This past spring, when I was in the UK doing the annual round of Ig Nobel shows for National Science Week, a renowned British scientist sat me down for a talking-to. You must understand, he told me, that this Ig Nobel humor is very British, that nothing like it exists in America. I reminded him that I’m American. He glared at me.

 So I dunno.  

 British institutions have been more openly welcoming to this kind of thing than American institutions. In the US the tradition is that science is a very *earnest* undertaking, Benjamin Franklin and Richard Feynman being the great exceptions. In Britain, deadpan humor is part of the fabric. The best-known scientific report of the twentieth century, Watson and Crick’s paper in Nature announcing the structure of the DNA molecule, is famous as much for its brilliant deadpan concluding sentence as for its factual content. Had they published, instead, in the American rival journal, Science, that sentence would almost certainly have been edited down or out.

Q. Your latest post was about a patent for a poop shooter – a tank toilet that turns human waste into bombs. Are there any research topics that are too sexual, scatological or otherwise off limits to the AIR?

We’re all about things that first make people laugh, then make them think. If — and only if — a particular item has that dual quality, it is perfectly suited for us. That quality has a power that trumps all.

Q. Describe your sense of humor in five or fewer words.

I crave curiously pleasant surprises.

 

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