Mastermind of scientific humor Magazine: Marc Abrahams uses his Annals of Improbable Research satire to reach people afraid of science.



CAMBRIDGE — CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Marc Abrahams pads around his cozy, cat-infested apartment here, surrounded by stacks of papers detailing subversively silly theories, wildly improbable

hypotheses and dangerously whimsical experiments.

The 41-year-old Harvard graduate and former software entrepreneur, who is generally as deadpan as Buster Keaton, could be just another academic in a city crowded with them.

Instead, he is the satirical mastermind behind a science humor empire: Abrahams is editor in chief of the Annals of Improbable Research, an amalgam of real research, such as effects of LSD on Siamese fighting fish, mixed with bogus articles, such as one on how to catch meteorites in Antarctica with butterfly nets and baseball gloves.

Annals authors have calculated the odds of being abducted by aliens, reported on the aerodynamic properties of potato chips and studied the relationship between apples and oranges. They have pondered why tornadoes prefer to hit trailer parks, offered a solution to the problem of whether something is half-full or half-empty and tried to quantify the degree to which doornails are dead.

Nobel spoof raises eyebrows

Despite this ground-breaking research, the publication reaches a relatively tiny readership. While the journal's free Internet publication, Mini-AIR, has about 200,000 readers, it is not well-known outside scientific circles.

It is Abrahams' annual spoof of the Nobel prizes that has earned him international recognition.

The Ig Nobel awards are held each fall, about the time the real Nobels are handed out in Stockholm, Sweden. While the Nobels are solemn affairs, the Igs are a multiring circus of 30-second speeches, song parodies, scantily clad research assistants, paper-airplane throwing spectators and white-maned Nobel laureates (real ones) dressed in silly clothes.

(The awards, handed out to honor "research that cannot or should not be reproduced," are named after Alfred Nobel's imaginary cousin, Ignatius, the supposed inventor of excelsior and soda pop.)

When the first Ig Nobel ceremony was held at MIT in 1991, just 350 people showed up. Admission was free. Last October, about 1,200 people shelled out $10 each for seats in Sanders Theater at Harvard's Memorial Hall.

During the ceremony, organizers awarded a Purdue scientist the chemistry prize for lighting a barbecue in a world-record three seconds by using liquid oxygen. French President Jacques Chirac won the Peace Prize for commemorating the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima with atomic tests in the Pacific. American tobacco executives were honored for their surprising discovery, announced to Congress, that nicotine is not addictive.

While some of the world's most respected scientists cavort on stage during the festivities, not everyone gets the joke. Some researchers grumble that they get little enough respect from the public as it is, without a journal that seems devoted to making fun of them. In 1995, the Ig Nobel in physics went to three British authors of a paper on why cereal goes soggy in milk ("The effects of water content on the compaction behavior of breakfast flakes"). They happily accepted the honor. But a British tabloid named the Sun (no relation to this newspaper) learned of the award and blasted the research:

"Barmy scientists have spent 100,000 pounds of taxpayers' money finding out why cornflakes go soggy when you pour milk on them," the paper reported. "Last night the potty project - funded by the Ministry of Agriculture - had critics going crackle and pop."

The criticism stung Sir Robert May, Britain's chief science adviser. He wrote an angry letter to Abrahams.

"I wrote back and explained the Ig was very much to support science and we're careful, always, not to do something that could hurt a scientist's career," Abrahams recalls. He told May he wanted to celebrate quirky research, not condemn it.

May wrote a second letter.

"And he was really angry," Abrahams says.

May was still smarting months later when he warned the British journal Nature that the Igs could erode support for "genuine" science. But a number of British researchers, proud of their nation's reputation for coddling eccentrics, disagreed. Chemistry and Industry magazine shot back in an editorial titled: "We Are Amused."

"Far from a convincing case for the pernicious effect of the Ig Nobels," the editorial said, "May's misfire only makes him (and British science) look thin-skinned and humorless. He mistakes discomfort for disaster, and solemnity for seriousness. Long may British scientists take their rightful places in the Ig Nobel honour roll."

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