MARC ABRAHAMS TRAWLS THROUGH THE WORLD’S MOST IMPROBABLE
RESEARCH IN THE NAME OF SCIENCE – AND A GOOD LAUGH.
CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING SCIENTIFICALLY VERIFIABLE FACTS: ..........................................
Once a cow has stood up it’s difficult to predict when it will next lie down. Expensive fake medicine works better than cheap fake medicine. People will find a way to delay their own deaths if it will qualify them for a lower rate on inheritance tax.
If these findings made you chortle and then wonder, Marc Abrahams is happy. Every year, his Annals of Improbable Research receives thousands of nominations from folk who reckon they’ve stumbled on a piece of “improbable research” deserving of special acclaim. As the magazine’s editor and emcee of its annual Ig Nobel Prize, it’s Abrahams’ job to decide whether they are.
“We assess the entries by two criteria,” Abrahams says. “To win the Ig Nobel prize you need to have done something that makes people laugh, and then think.” Ideally, you should also make people argue. “The extent to which people will disagree about what research is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is really interesting.”
For those entrants judged worthy, up for grabs is a no-expenses-paid trip to the annual award ceremony at Harvard University. There, the winners are invited on stage to collect their prize from a genuine Nobel laureate while the audience hurls paper planes at them. Their acceptance speech had best be brief. Should they prattle on, a young girl stationed by the podium is at rights to squeal, “Please stop: I’m bored.”
While the Ig Nobels are clearly a parody of the Nobel Prizes, Abrahams says the aim is to celebrate human inquiry, not mock it. Absurd though the winning entries might sound, each is an example of the laborious, unglamorous effort that provides the backbone of human progress. “At school you’re taught ‘so and so discovered this important thing’,” Abrahams explains. “But these discoveries were rarely welcomed. Generally those who made a significant breakthrough were told they were crazy or stupid.”
Abrahams’ bugbear is that many of us haven’t grown out of this mindset. “When you hear about a bit of research and instantly think ‘that’s crazy,’ what you’re revealing is that you don’t know anything about it.” Hence Abrahams’ fondness for the debate that typically comes out of the Ig Nobels. As he puts it, “If people really start arguing on the merit of the winners, they may look at the research a little more closely and their opinions might change.” The winner of the 2017 Physics Prize is a good example. By showing that cats fit the technical definition of both solids and liquids, the paper’s author actually highlighted deficiencies in how we define the two states. Through the lure of humour, Abrahams is trying to get people to work through their innate preconceptions about what constitutes good science.
That being said, some of the prizes handed out can also be seen as political swipes or wry commendations for novel initiatives. In 2010, year of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the Chemistry Prize was awarded to BP “for disproving the old belief that oil and water don’t mix”. The 2007 Peace Prize, meanwhile, went to the U.S. Air Force Wright Laboratory “for instigating research and development on a chemical weapon – the so-called ‘gay bomb’ – that will make enemy soldiers become sexually irresistible to each other.”
On some occasions, the Ig Nobels have even taken a dig at the field of research itself. Such, at least, was the case for the Neuroscience Prize of 2012, which was picked up by four Americans “for demonstrating that brain researchers, by using complicated instruments and simple statistics, can see meaningful brain activity anywhere – even in a dead salmon.” If only there was an award for “unveiling our propensity, as a species, to believe in things that we want to – and dismiss out of hand those that we don’t”, Abrahams would be a shoo-in.