Serious Fun

Master of ceremonies Marc Abrahams introduces Arturas Zuokas, the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, during the 21st annual Ig Nobel Awards ceremony.

Master of ceremonies Marc Abrahams [RIGHT] introduces Arturas Zuokas [LEFT], the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, during the 21st annual Ig Nobel Awards ceremony. (Associated Press)

When I started the Annals of Improbable Research in 1994, I quickly discovered that the real power in writing anything about science comes from the simple fact that it involves people. You might think you’re writing about a particular molecule, but there are the people who discovered it and the other people who think the first people got it wrong. The director of a physics lab where I once gave a talk told me that from outside science there’s the strange illusion that science is about everything except people, but from the inside it doesn’t look that way at all.

I have a license to play about with anything related to science. That’s how I’ve spent my life. I grew up reading about science and liking it: I went to Harvard University, majored in applied math, went off and did programming, and then started a software company. Around 1990 I sent some articles to the Journal of Irreproducible Results (a science humor magazine). I got a phone call a few weeks later from the publisher who asked if I wanted to be the editor of his journal. For a while I assumed all science editors got their start that way. In 1994 I started Improbable Research after the owners of Irreproducible Results told me they planned to stop publishing it.

That first year at Irreproducible Results I got a lot of people involved in the journal. I also started the Ig Nobels. The most difficult thing then was describing what I do. One day I heard the words pop out of my mouth: make people laugh and then make them think. That’s what the Ig Nobels are about. Like everything else I do, that cuts in many directions. Almost everything in the history of science is taught as a long list of scientific breakthroughs, which would not have been seen as breakthroughs if people hadn’t thought them crazy. Whatever is unexpected and improbable is the quality I look for in Ig Nobel winners. And because it’s so very different from the expected, it seems funny, but down the line, if a discovery becomes important, it will seem ordinary.

There are a lot of people who want these prizes now. In the early days that hadn’t occurred to us. Once we started getting press, people saw the publicity as valuable. Between 10% and 20% of all nominations are made by people nominating themselves. Candidates’ organizations, company labs, hospitals, even their governments started lobbying us to give an Ig Nobel prize. People sometimes offer bribes—wonderfully ridiculous ones like a dollar note in their own currency. They have the right spirit.

The committee that awards the prize is the Ig Nobel board of governors—a large, shadowy group. We’ve never written down a list of who they are. They cover a great span: some are magazine editors, teachers, and journalists, and some are scientists—some famous, some not, a few have Nobel prizes, a few have Ig Nobels. If you come to the Ig ceremony it’s a very rich people experience. There’s a kind of shock in the audience that someone has done this strange thing, such as finding the ideal density for airborne wasabi that will wake up people in case of a fire and using that to create a wasabi alarm. And then chemistry Nobel winner Dudley Herschbach hands out an Ig Nobel to these wasabi researchers, and the audience throws paper airplanes.

People who think science will eventually answer all questions see science as no more than a cartoon. Pick any object you can think of, even a rock, and try to explain to the next person you meet exactly what that object is and why it is the way it is. Once you’ve started asking two or three questions you realize you will never run out of questions. The poet William Blake found that with a grain of sand. The best answer we can possibly get will bring with it a whole new bunch of questions.

An awful lot of the people who teach science in elementary school and junior high are frightened of science. Their view of science is an outsiders’ view, that science is a bunch of important things you must stuff into people’s heads and that you must know all about these things to be a scientist. But I’ve heard scientists talk, and they embrace ignorance as an adventure to be tackled rather than something to be ashamed of.

Marc Abrahams is the editor of Annals of Improbable Research and creator of the Ig Nobel Prizes. His book, This Is Improbable, was released in September 2012.