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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 set out to scientifically

determine the optimal way to dunk a biscuit, he didn’t have the Nobel

Prize in mind. Neither did Takeshi Makino, president of the

Safety Detective Agency in Osaka, Japan, who was involved in the

creation

of an infidelity detection spray that wives can apply to their

husbands’

underwear. Nonetheless, both men were given awards for their

contributions

to science — the infamous "Ig Nobel" award that the Annals

of Improbable Science in Cambridge, Massachusetts, gives out each

year.

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

Marc Abrahams, editor and founder of the Annals, enjoys walking

it. "About a third of what we publish is genuine research, a third

is concocted, and about a third our readers can’t tell

difference,"

says Abrahams, the journal’s founder and editor, who speaks at the

Princeton chapter of the American Chemical Society on Tuesday,

February

22, at 8 p.m. at the Kresge Auditorium at Princeton’s Frick

Laboratory.

Call 609-258-5202.

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

world,

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

science."

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

medicine.

You never know whether a joke is near or far from reality."


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