Friday, August 7, 2009

"Improbable Research and the Strangeness of Everyday Life," with Marc Abrahams - August 4, 2009

On Tuesday, August 4, Temple Israel concluded its "Summer in the City" lecture series with Marc Abrahams, the editor and co-founder of the Annals of Improbable Research and host of the IgNobel Prize Awards ceremony, held every year in Sanders Theater in Cambridge. He spoke about the history and origins of the IgNobel Awards, described different recipients and their research, and answered questions from the audience about the magazine and the awards.

He began his talk with a demonstration of an IgNobel-winning invention, Under-Ease, an anti-flatulence undergarment with a charcoal filter liner, invented by Buck Weimer, whose wife suffers from Crohn's disease, a condition causing digestive distress. Mr. Weimer came up with the idea to help his wife, and then realized it could potentially help others and so started a business manufacturing and promoting them. Abrahams talked about the device as an example of research that "makes people laugh, and then makes them think."

All IgNobel Prize winners are, like Mr. Weimer's invention, real things and real research done by serious people, Abrahams said. The IgNobel Prizes were first awarded in 1991, and ten prizes are awarded per year, selected from a pool of roughly 6,000+ nominations annually. People who nominate themselves rarely win, he said, although those who are not selected as winners remain in the pool and may be selected at a later date. The prize itself varies but is inevitably made of cheap materials by Eric Workman of the Museum of Science. Winners are given the opportunity to decline the prize, but, Abrahams said, most accept, and are invited to travel to the ceremony at their own expense to receive the prize and a piece of paper announcing the prize, signed by various Nobel Prize laureates.

Each year's ceremony has a theme (for example, last year's theme was "Redundancy") and the ceremony itself is broadcast live on the internet as well as replayed in part on NPR's Science Friday on the day after Thanksgiving. Nobel laureates attend the ceremony and sit on the stage, where they pass out awards to the IgNobel winners. A cute 8 year old girl "with icewater in her veins" named Miss Sweetie Poo plays timekeeper by walking up to winners whose acceptance speeches run past their allotted 1 minute, and shouting "Please stop I'm bored" over and over until the winner relents. It is an ironclad rule of the IgNobels that Miss Sweetie Poo be eight years old and thus every year she is different.

Abrahams went on to name the 2008 winners, including
  • Dorian Raymer and Douglas Smith, winners of the 2008 IgNobel Prize for Physics, for proving that heaps of hair or string will tangle themselves into knots;
  • a team of five scientists from Japan and Hungary who showed that slime molds can solve puzzles, winners of the Cognitive Science Prize,
  • three economists who proved that professional lap dancers earn more when ovulating, for the Economics Prize,
  • two scientists from Italy and Oxford respectively, who showed that changing the sound of a potato chip crunch can alter someone's opinion of the freshness of the chip won the Nutrition Prize,
  • The Swiss Federal Ethics Commission, winners of the Peace Prize for their work advocating the principle that plants have dignity,
  • two Brazilian scientists who won the Archaeology Prize for showing the effect of burrowing armadillos on dig sites,
  • three French professors who showed that fleas on a dog can jump higher than fleas on a cat, winners of the Biology Prize,
  • Dan Ariely of Duke University, and others, who showed that high priced fake medicines were more effective than low-priced ones, winner of the Medicine Prize,
  • David Sims of the Cass Business School of London, winner of the Literature Prize for his narrative exploration of indignation within organizations, and
  • two teams of scientists, one showing that Coca-Cola is an effective spermicide and one showing that it is not, winners of the Chemistry Prize.
Although the moments when the winners walk through the satin curtain to accept their awards is certainly the most magical part of the ceremony, it is not the only part. Other features of the IgNobel Prize ceremony include a mini opera with professional singers and scientists participating, and at one point in the evening one lucky audience member is revealed to have been selected to "Win a Date with a Nobel Laureate," in a random drawing.

There are 180 past IgNobel winners, who have won for such things as studying why woodpeckers don't get headaches, or homosexual necrophilia in mallards, or how to stop persistent hiccups through rectal massage. One winner, John Michael Keough, was awarded an IgNobel Prize for having patented the wheel.

Following his talk, Abrahams answered questions from the audience on why a winner might turn down an IgNobel Prize (Abrahams said that it's not often that a winner declines but when they do it is usually because they fear the notoreity that may accompany it). Another audience member asked Abrahams how to tell the difference between silly and serious research; Abrahams replied that the research has to be "compelling"- it has to stay with you and really make you think about it. Research that is simply funny never wins. The next question was on funding for the journal and the awards and Abrahams replied that he is funded through subscriptions, ticket sales and speaking engagements but that most of the people who work on both are volunteers. Next was a question on whether this year's Miss Sweetie Poo had been chosen, to which he replied no and encouraged anyone who might know someone suitable to contact him. Finally, an audience member asked about the connection between the Journal Of Irreproducible Results and the Annals of Improbable Research, and Abrahams replied that he was the editor of the JIR and began the AIR when the JIR folded in 1990.

The IgNobel Prizes will be awarded this year on October 1 at the Sanders Theater in Cambridge. You can visit AIR online at

Friday, July 17, 2009

"The Wandering Jew" with Steve Jermanok - July 14, 2009

On the evening of Tuesday, July 14, Temple Israel hosted travel writer Steve Jermanok for the first talk in its Summer in the City lecture series. Mr. Jermanok spoke for about an hour or so, then signed copies of his book, New England Seacoast Adventures: A Complete Guide to Outdoor Recreation from Connecticut to Maine. In addition to being a seasoned and prolific travel writer and author of several books, Mr. Jermanok is also the voice behind the website Active Travels, a blog and discussion forum for the adventurous.

Mr. Jermanok started off by retelling the story of his beginnings as a travel writer, starting in 1990 when he left his job as a broker in New York City and went to the South Pacific. Since then, he's traveled to over 75 countries, written more than 1,000 articles (including over 150 articles for the Boston Globe) and estimates that he still spends about one week of every month on the road. During this time, he says, he's seen the worst and best that humanity has to offer- heartbreaking poverty in Kenya and Turkey, as well as breathtaking scenery in Tahiti, Newfoundland and Patagonia and has enjoyed the incredible kindness and compassion of ordinary people all over the globe, who have taken him in, fed him and taught him so much.

He started off as a broker during the "days of excess" of the 1980s- the days of the $300 bottle of wine for lunch, and the days when the boss would come out of the bathroom and offer him cocaine. He decided to call it quits and booked a flight to Sydney, Australia, with Perry Garfinkle's Travel Writing for Profit and Pleasure and a blank journal in his backpack. He kept that journal for all of his 3-4 month trip, writing his first travel story, "When a friendship becomes a hardship," upon his return. Mr. Jermanok then treated us to a sample of that first story.

After returning to New York, Mr. Jermanok got a string of jobs waiting tables to pay the bills while continuing to write in his off-hours. Private tutoring also helped fill in the gaps and he told the audience at Temple Israel about his experiences tutoring a Columbia University graduate student in quantum mechanics. He continued to write every morning, including writing pieces on New York City, including items on a vintage toy store and a downtown bar.

In 1992, Mr. Jermanok got married, and, noting that the following Sunday would be his seventeenth wedding anniversary, recounted some details of his honeymoon trip to Turkey and Greece. He told the audience a sweet story he said was one of his favorites, called "For the love of Allah," about taking a trip to a lake in the mountains with his new wife, guided by a Turkish man who refused all payment for himself, saying that he was helping them "for the love of Allah."

He continued to write, and brought in a folder containing 1,000 rejection letters to show the Temple Israel audience- including one from MAD Magazine, which said that Jermanok's article "just didn't tickle our funnybone." Now, he said, rejection is done online and it's rare to receive an actual printed letter. During this time he was home probably two months out of the year- otherwise he was travelling. He took a 16-day freighter cruise to the Marquesas Islands, the most remote island chain the world. He went back to Fiji, and then back to New York to earn some more money because despite all the traveling he was still not able to earn a living as a travel writer.

Deciding that a book deal would help raise his professional profile, he "harassed" contacts at Frommer's for an opportunity. In 1994 he was offered the chance to write a guide covering outdoor sports in New England- and leapt at it, almost literally. He trained at the gym to improve his physical condition, then skiied, canooed, kayaked, hiked and wrote his way for a year of 80-hour weeks and an hourly wage he estimates at $4.80 when all was said and done. The book was published in 1995.

The next three years were very good to him. New magazines were starting up, like National Geographic Adventure and Mens Journal, which offered a plethora of opportunity. During this time he biked around the Big Island of Hawaii, kayaked in Prince Edward Island and went to the Mohave Desert, where it was so hot that his microphone melted. He went to Las Vegas and was stuck there for three days while waiting out a blizzard in New England. Then Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster was published in 1999, pushing the envelope on adventure travel. Jermanok took a white-water rafting trip to British Columbia that nearly turned fatal until he and his companions were pulled out of rough waters by a Canadian fisherman.

Mr. Jermanok then spoke on the relationship of a writer to his editor, and how these relationships can be helpful or not, as was one editor who assigned a story to him on hiking peaks over 10,000 feet high- a feat Mr. Jermanok had not tackled- only to respond to the article by saying that it hadn't been "insider" enough. Nowadays, post-9/11, Mr. Jermanok talked about the rise in family travel and thus family-travel writing- stories about where to go with the kids. He then recounted a poignant anecdote about climbing Mt. Monadnock in Massachusetts with his young son. In recent years Mr. Jermanok has traveled to Costa Rica, Kenya, Poland and Israel, the last trip he described as very personally meaningful, and the story that came from that he believed to be one of his best. When asked what his favorite place is, he said that the good places tend to blend together and what really makes travel interesting are the people you meet and with whom you share the experiences.

During the Q&A portion of the evening, Mr. Jermanok fielded questions such as the most dangerous animal he's encountered (the hippopotamus) and the most unusual foods he's eaten (beaver, boa, crocodile, and impala). He also commented on the state of the industry today, saying that he's seen much of the business move online and towards shorter articles and more "round-up" articles- top 10 of this or that, for example. Launching his new blog, Active Travels, has given him a forum he enjoys to talk directly to the reader without an editor as mediator. In addition to travel writing, Mr. Jermanok has written screenplays, including one for the recent film "Passionata". He said that the most important thing for young writers is to have patience and perseverence enough to get through the initial rejections. He finished the evening chatting with and signing books for many interested audience members.