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. 

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.


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