Friday, October 12, 2018

Marc Abrahams Turned Strange Science into an Event Known Around the World

Marc Abrahams, Ig Nobel emcee, 
Illumination by Human Spotlight
Marc Abrahams is the editor and founder of the Annals of Improbable Research and the co-founder and Emcee of the annual Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. Both the Ig Nobel Prizes and the magazine are approaching their thirtieth year of making people laugh and then think.

I met Marc Abrahams in 2006 when the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting was in St. Louis.  The AAAS meeting is always over President’s weekend in February.  During that weekend in 2006, the temperature in St. Louis never got higher than ten degrees Fahrenheit.  

We were introduced in a crowded bar in the conference hotel by the science writer Katharine Sanderson, then a science writer for Chemistry World magazine in the U.K. Sanderson had written about the history of the chemistry museum I worked for and thought Marc would like it.  

I had never heard of the Ig Nobel Prizes, but loved the idea from the moment Marc began explaining them.  The ten annual prizes mirror the actual Nobel prizes, though not strictly.  They are awarded for actual published scientific research about strange topics.  For example, this year, the Medicine Ig Nobel Prize went to a Japanese doctor who published a paper describing a self colonoscopy. 


The winner of the 2018 Ig Nobel Prize 
in Medicine for Self Colonoscopy

Another 2018 Ig Nobel laureate received the prize in the Nutrition category—not a Nobel category. He showed from research based on DNA from three millennia ago that a cannibal diet is not as nutritious as diet based on eating other animals and plants.  His findings show it’s better to eat with your neighbor than to eat your neighbor.

The Ig Nobel Prizes are bestowed on the winners by actual Nobel laureates. People, who have been honored in Stockholm by the Swedish Academy for brilliant research, laugh along with everyone else as they hand out prizes for research on bras that become gas masks or frogs that levitate in magnetic fields. They even help to sweep up the paper airplanes.

This year, the woman who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry told Ira Flatow on Science Friday that she wanted an Ig Nobel Prize! It seemed as she was also quite happy with the Nobel Prize.

Since 1991, Marc has donned a tux and top hat and acted as emcee for this annual ceremony that includes a comic opera and, to add nerdiness, a blizzard of paper airplanes.  

Paper airplanes fill the air in Sanders Theater

After the September ceremony in Sanders Theater at Harvard each year, Marc travels the world talking about the Ig Nobels.  This year he was in a festival in Japan just a week after the ceremony in Cambridge.  He also puts on an abbreviated ceremony at the annual meeting of AAAS—the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which is always held on the President’s Day weekend in February. Sometimes the AAAS meeting also conflicts with Valentine’s Day and with the Daytona 500.  What this says about scientists, I leave to others to decide.
Marc speaks to audiences around the world.

My first volunteer job with the Ig Nobel was ushering at the Ig Nobel ceremony at the AAAS meeting beginning in 2006.  However, after I returned from Iraq in 2010, Marc added me to the volunteer staff in Cambridge as a press wrangler. Each year I escort reporters in and out of the ceremony. Because of copyright and legal restrictions, broadcast reporters are limited in how much time they can record.  My particular job is to escort the reporter and cameraman from Channel One (ПервыйКанал) in Russia.  Camera crews from many countries have filmed the Ig Nobel ceremony over the years, but Channel One Russia and NHK Japan have been there every year since I have been a volunteer.

This year, for the first time, I was able to attend one of the Ig Nobel picnics. The picnics bring together volunteers who are running past each other on the day of the event. This year I arrived early enough to hear practice for the Opera. In addition to playing at the Ig Nobel ceremony and the picnic, one of the pianists, Ivan Gusev, will be playing a solo concert at Carnegie Hall next month.  

One of the best pieces of career advice I have ever received said that happiness at work depends more on who you work with than on what you do.  Marc Abrahams took this one step further: he created a ceremony that became an institution that attracts people who laugh and think and who want others to join in and do the same.


Thursday, October 11, 2018

Commie Plots! Chick Tracts! My Visit to the Global Headquarters of the Sectarian Review Podcast

Danny Anderson meeting Philip Roth
at the celebration of Roth's 80th birthday

Danny Anderson is a professor of literature at Mount Aloysius College near Cresson, Pennsylvania. He grew up near Cleveland in a center of American fundamentalism: the kind of place where Barry Goldwater was considered a Liberal, the Earth was 6,000 years old, fluoride was a Commie plot, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were real, not just a nickname for top-rated defensive linemen. 

And yet, Danny earned a Masters Degree in American Jewish literature, followed by a PhD comparing the Campus as a setting in Jewish film and literature.  So what school could be a better fit for an expert in Jewish literature who grew up Conservative Evangelical than a rural Catholic College that was founded as a convent and school for girls in 1853? 

So many strands of American faith are woven through Danny’s life that he is an ecumenical event when he is eating lunch alone at his desk. 

Actually Danny has two desks in the Homage-to-Hogwarts structure he works in.  The second desk is the studio where he records podcasts.  Danny is the founder and host of SectarianReview, a podcast about Faith, Culture, Music, Economics, Film, History, Religion and Politics.  If that sounds sane, here are ten actual topics:

·      Elon Musk
·      The John Birch Society
·      Spiderman
·      Andrei Rublev
·      Seven Mountains Dominionism
·      Donald J. Trump
·      Oscar Romero and Redemption
·      Science Fiction & Theology
·      Chick Tracts
·      The Wolf Man

From these topics, and from many others, like Alex Jones being banned on Social Media, you could get the idea that Sectarian Review is all fun and crazy. But the most affecting episode for me was “Black Exodus from White Evangelicalism.” I listened to that interview twice and read her article "For Those Who Stay" by Danny’s guest Tamara Johnson the same day the podcast dropped on my iPhone. 

In that episode Johnson talked about her struggle to be part of a white Evangelical congregation and how Charlottesville changed everything for her.  I am struggling with being an ethnically Jewish believer with Black sons and wondering how I can worship with people who drank the full pitcher of Trump Koolaid and continue to be devoted to him after Charlottesville. Listening to Johnson helped me to deal with that conflict in my life.

I was in the Johnstown area Monday, so I took a forty-minute drive northeast and met Danny at his office, got a brief tour of the campus then went to lunch. During lunch we mainly talked about Danny’s research area.  I grew up in a completely secular Jewish home and read very little American Jewish literature. Danny is now my Sherpa on that high mountain. He posted a list of his ten favorite Jewish novels on the Sectarian Review website. During lunch he recommended a half-dozen books and movies I should see and read, with a supplemental list of Woody Allen movies.  I was texting titles to myself while he spoke. It’s a good thing my iPhone has lots of memory.

If you were wondering what kind of person grows up fundamentalist, studies Jewish literature, teaches at a rural Catholic College, Danny is the only one. I cannot recommend the podcast highly enough. I suggest scanning the Sectarian Review website for your favorite conspiracy theory then begin listening, and smiling.    

  Danny Anderson

Sectarian Review is part of the Christian Humanist Network.  

Marc Abrahams Turned Strange Science into an Event Known Around the World

Marc Abrahams, Ig Nobel emcee,  Illumination by Human Spotlight Marc Abrahams is the editor and founder of the Annals of Improbable ...