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The secret formula for silly science

Improbable.com

The Ig Nobel Prizes sometimes knock scientific decorum off its pedestal.

Updated 10:25 p.m. ET

If there's a formula for silly science, Ig Nobel founder Marc Abrahams surely has it figured out. For 21 years, he and his friends at the Annals of Improbable Research have made international headlines by honoring breakthroughs like the first study of homosexual necrophiliac ducks, and the invention of the bra that turns into a gas mask.

But here's a clue or two for future laureates: Make sure there's a dash of seriousness to go with the silliness. One sure way not to win an Ig Nobel is to try too hard to be funny.


"If you were to set out and try to win an Ig Nobel Prize, you would almost certainly fail," Abrahams told me. "To win a prize, you've got to do something that makes pretty much everyone laugh when they first hear about it, and then it gets into their mind enough that they just want to keep thinking about it and finding out more. It's not that hard to make something funny, and it's not that hard to come up with something that will make people scratch their head and wonder about it. But it's very hard to come up with things that will do both of those."

Abrahams talked about the ingredients of Ig-worthy science tonight during "Virtually Speaking Science," our monthly talk show on the Web and in the Second Life virtual world. If you missed the live show, you can still catch up with the podcast on BlogTalkRadio as well as on iTunes.

The subject of tonight's show was particularly apt because today we announced the winners of this year's Weird Science Awards. The Weirdies celebrate the silliest science of the past year, from A (for Aflockalypse) to Z (for zombie ants).

The Ig Nobels, which take their inspiration from the Nobel Prize, are a much bigger production. They're announced each September (or sometimes early October) during a Harvard ceremony that features real Nobel laureates, musical interludes and occasional barrages of paper airplanes. For the past two decades, it's been a formula for success for Abrahams and his fellow AIR-heads. After the Ig Nobel festivities, Abrahams takes the show on the road, to Britain, the Netherlands and other locations around the globe. Abrahams has also written several books that recount the tales behind the Ig Nobel winners.

I discussed the Ig phenomenon with Abrahams during a phone interview on Tuesday. Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:

Cosmic Log: Are there particularly better or worse years for the Ig Nobels? Where does this past year rate?

Marc Abrahams: One of the main qualities that everything has to have if we're doing a good job is that it's surprising. If each of the winners is not surprising, we have not been doing a good job. So I think the idea of surprise is like the idea of infinity. It's hard to compare infinities. It's hard to compare surprises. As long as everything is surprising, we're happy. And for all the winners we had, we saw plenty of people who were very, very surprised.

Q: So whether it's infinity, or infinity times two, it's hard to compare. It almost sounds like you're saying "I can't decide which of my children I like best."

A: Well, you probably can. But if you were to be asked on consecutive days, the answers would not be very consistent, probably.

Q: Have you seen any areas that are really ripe for being recognized with an Ig Nobel? Any subject that is just crying out for the Ig Nobel treatment?

A: There are so many ... I can't think of a particular subject that stands out over the others as having not been recognized. It's more that there are certain things that people do that seem to keep on producing this quality of work. We've seen no signs that anything is slowing down. Humanity seems to be getting better and better at producing this stuff. Or maybe just at making it apparent to the rest of the world so that we can find it.

Anything that's so complicated that people will probably never really understand it is going to produce some good Ig Nobel prizes, because people are going to try their hardest to understand it, or pretend to understand it. I'll mention medicine, because medicine is far too complicated, and most doctors who know what they're doing seem to spend most of their time realizing that they barely know anything at all. But there are other doctors who don't seem to feel that way. Those are the ones who tend to win more Ig Nobel Prizes.

Q: Are there some researchers who go out and deliberately try to win a prize?

A: Oh, yeah. From the beginning we've had far more people than we would have ever expected who seem to devote their lives to trying to get an Ig Nobel Prize. There are some who are constantly sending in all sorts of things. They're welcome to nominate themselves. Anybody can. But we get thousands and thousands of nominations every year. Ten to 20 percent of those are people nominating themselves. They almost never win. And of the very few people who have nominated themselves and won, in almost every case, they did not set out to win an Ig Nobel Prize. They may have set out to win a Nobel Prize, but the way it came out was just a side effect. They had something they were trying to get done, and somewhere along the way, or after it was all finished, it became apparent that, wow, this is Ig Nobel-class work.

Q: Have some researchers' lives been changed because they won an Ig Nobel? For example, the woman who invented the bra that converts into a pair of gas masks?

A: Yeah, that's a good example. Especially in the last five or 10 years, there seem to be a fair number of people who have had pretty good things happen to them. They've started businesses, or their businesses have taken off. They've gotten book contracts or have become better known. Elena Bodnar is a good example. Kees Moeliker, the homosexual-necrophiliac-duck guy. Even Andre Geim, who used magnets to levitate a frog and win an Ig, and then 10 years later got a Nobel Prize ... the Ig Nobel had nothing to do with him getting a Nobel Prize, but Andre being Andre, the same kinds of forces were at work in him that led to both those things.

I've seen Andre say several times in interviews that it took a lot more courage for him and his colleague Michael Berry to accept their Ig Nobel Prize than the Nobel Prize. They've both been well-known and respected scientists for a long time, and sometimes there's been a little bit of a stigma against scientists getting up in public and appearing to be fully human and enjoying life. If you look back at the last century or so, it's hard to come up quickly with more than two or three names of scientists who enjoyed being funny in public. Richard Feynman is about the only one.

Q: During September's Ig Nobel ceremony, the mathematics prize went to preacher Harold Camping and other doomsayers who predicted the end of the world, erroneously. Is there room for a prize to recognize the 2012 Maya apocalypse this year?

A: It's certainly possible. We have a policy of not discussing candidates for future prizes in public. But I'm comfortable in saying that pretty much anything you can think of could be a candidate, if someone were to make a nomination. With those predictions, the problem is, who do you nominate? We're hesitant to give a prize in a case where it's not at all clear who we're giving it to. We don't award the prize to a concept. We award it to a specific person or a specific group of people.

Q: I'm greatly tempted to ask you to list some of your favorite prizes from the past...

A: I don't have any one that is the absolute favorite. There's the levitating frog with magnets, there's the homosexual necrophiliac duck, Elena Bodner's emergency bra ... boy, where to stop? Jacques Benveniste won two Ig Nobel Prizes: one for explaining that water molecules are able to remember things, and the second for extending that research and starting a company that was going to let the public send credit card information over the Internet or a phone line, in return for which this company would send you drugs over the Internet or the phone line. You would somehow take a glass of water and hook it up to your telephone, and they would deliver your medicine to you.

Q: If you're talking about multiple winners, there's the Japanese slime-mold research group.

A: Yup. And who knows? It's conceivable that any of the winners could win again in the future for things they haven't yet done.

There's also the case of the prize that went to two teams of researchers who independently came up with studies saying that herring, those little fish, communicate by farting. One of the groups has an especially good story. It was research done in Sweden, in Stockholm harbor, at the request of the Swedish government. This was back when the Soviet Union still existed, and the Swedish government was convinced that the Soviets were sending submarines into the harbor, but they needed proof before they could get up in public and accuse them.

So they put some microphones underwater, figuring that they would get recordings of the sounds of the submarines. They heard some mechanical clanking, very rhythmic. It sounded like metal banging, and they thought, "This is it! These are the submarines. But we're going to do this right, and we're going to get some good biologists to analyze this and tell us for sure what this is."

So they got these guys, who pretty quickly realized that these were not Soviet submarines. These were herrings, farting. We occasionally do shows in Scandinavia, and if one of them comes to the show, they'll usually go to the market beforehand, buy a freshly cut herring, bring it to the show and demonstrate. "This is a herring, and I'm going to show you the sound it makes."

I recently ran across a big report about the Swedish effort to detect submarines, and it was a wonderful report to read ... only it was missing this vital information. It didn't say anything at all about this, which in a way was one of the key elements in the whole history of the relationship between these two countries.

That got me thinking about all the history that's taught in schools, and how it's always so dignified. You never get these things that are sometimes really right in the heart of what happened. Nobody talks about them because they're not dignified.

Tonight's "Virtually Speaking Science" conversation took place in Second Life and will be archived on BlogTalkRadio and iTunes. Check out these other podcasts from the "VSScience" show:


Many thanks to the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics for co-sponsoring Wednesday's Second Life talk at the MICA Small Auditorium at Stella Nova.

Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter or adding me to your Google+ circle. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for other worlds.