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