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Author: Melinda Sherwood. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
February 16, 2000. All rights reserved.
`Ig Nobel’ Prizes: Marc Abrahams
When Dr. Len Fisher
determine the optimal way to dunk a biscuit, he didn’t have the Nobel
Prize in mind. Neither did Takeshi Makino
Safety Detective Agency in Osaka, Japan, who was involved in the
of an infidelity detection spray that wives can apply to their
underwear. Nonetheless, both men were given awards for their
to science — the infamous "Ig Nobel" award that the Annals
of Improbable Science in Cambridge, Massachusetts, gives out each
These may seem like likely candidates for the Ig Nobel prize, but
past winners have not been your typical goof-ball scientists —
the scientists who worked on cold fusion got their Ig Nobel too.
There’s a fine line between probable and improbable research, and
it. "About a third of what we publish is genuine research, a third
is concocted, and about a third our readers can’t tell
says Abrahams, the journal’s founder and editor, who speaks at the
Princeton chapter of the American Chemical Society on Tuesday,
22, at 8 p.m. at the Kresge Auditorium at Princeton’s Frick
Abrahams, who has a BA in applied math from Harvard, Class of 1978,
owned his own software company for 10 years before starting the Annals
(www.improbable.com). His team of writers includes even some real
Nobel Prize winners.
"We’re mainly a science magazine but there’s a lot of humor in
here as well," says Abrahams. "For people in the science
the Annals is a nice place to let down your hair and have a sense
of humor in public, which scientists don’t always feel comfortable
doing. For people who aren’t in the science world it’s a nice way
to become part of it easily. For people who don’t think they like
science, it’s way to see stuff that looks kind of goofy, but it might
get you curious. We have a lot of teachers in schools around the world
who use the magazine to unfairly seduce students into joining
The Annals hones in on the more obscure research going on in the world
(it’s popular among scientists and reporters for that reason), but
just because it ends up in the Annals of Improbable Research doesn’t
preclude it changing science forever.
"Every great discovery looks great and sensible after it’s been
made," says Abrahams, "and beforehand it looks pretty goofy.
About 150 years ago, a few doctors started talking up the idea that
if you are a surgeon you should wash your hands before opening up
a patient. People fought them hard and tried to run them out of
You never know whether a joke is near or far from reality."
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