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25 Dec, 2020 06:44

Scientists never sure of anything – Ig Nobel Prize founder 

As one famous sci-fi author once said, the phrase that heralds most discoveries is not “Eureka!” but “that's funny”... Marс Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prize and the editor of Annals of Improbable Research magazine, knows all about the humor of science.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prize, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research magazine. Hi, great to see you again. 

Marс Abrahams: Strange times, these are that we’re having today. 

SS: You tell me, they are, they quite are. Love your hat. I've heard you say that the problem with science in general is that he takes itself too seriously. And I agree that science shouldn't be all about cancer or atomic research. But you're saying ‘strange times’. But seriously, looking at how things turn out this year, don't you think that there is another problem, which is we haven't taken science seriously enough? 

MA: Yes, I agree with you on both counts. The problem with science and everything else is people take it too seriously and not seriously enough. Problem is that every day we hear about things that seem completely foolish and crazy. And many of them are foolish and crazy. But some of those will turn out to be real and important. It's difficult to tell when you first hear about something, what it means. 

SS: You know, scientists tell us that humour is our way to deal with something that is really heavy, and ultimately, with our mortality, but also with circumstances, bad politicians, pandemics, etc. But when a bunch of really smart people gather to celebrate the Ig Nobel, do you think that laughter could actually deep inside be some kind of a defense mechanism? And if so, against what? 

MA: I suppose so. But it has another effect. You know, laughter is a strange thing. It's a funny thing. And we're most interested in laughter that comes because you've seen something that's a big surprise, you don't know what to make it but it's such a surprise, it's so far outside your experience that you laugh. And now you're paying attention to it. And now that you're paying attention to it, you can start to try to figure out what it means and what it is. So that's what we're playing with mostly. 

SS: Things are easier to digest, when they're spiced up with humour in any field, right? 

MA: Things are easier to digest when they're interesting. If something is dull, you're not gonna digest it. If it's funny, it's interesting, at least for the moment – 

SS: But do you feel like humour can make science easier to comprehend as well? 

MA: Humour could open the door. When the door’s closed, you're not going to understand because you don't want to understand, why should you? Think back to when you were a kid. There are a lot of kids who really are scared about science, they're scared they're going to get a bad grade, they're scared that they won't understand things. If you're scared of something you're not going to understand. But if you're interested or you think it's funny, you're not scared of it. So now you'll start maybe thinking about it. 

SS: Was it your experience? Were you scared of science as a kid?  

MA: Oh, no, I loved it because I thought it was funny. So much of it just seemed crazy to me. It didn't make sense. And so I wanted to know how do you make sense of this. And that turned out to make science an easy thing to get more and more involved with. And I saw a lot of kids I grew up with were not like that. They were scared of it. That was the end of it. Now they're grown up. Now they're old like me, and they're still scared of it. They know they cannot understand anything about it. 

SS: So when I read the complete list of the Ig Nobel Prize winners (try it at home, everyone, it's a blast), I do notice this aspect of childlessness of some sort. And I mean, when you're little, you know, you run around poking ants with sticks and seeing how many legs does a fly really need to keep on living etc. – 

MA: Is that what you did when you were a child? 

SS: Well, I tried some of that.  

MA: You still do it?  

SS: No, I'm over it.  

MA: Oh, when did that stop? 

SS: I don't know. I'm just too busy running around, catching ants and flies. But maybe if I have time – 

MA: You have assistants now, you can ask them to go out and get some ants and flies for you. 

SS: Yeah, maybe that will make my life easier in this pandemic because it's really strange times. I'm going to try it. But anyways – 

MA: Try again.  

SS: I see the same happy fun In curiosity when I read about someone studying magnetic cockroaches. Is scientific curiosity mostly a serious matter, this noble heroic quest for truth? Or is it this stuff of this childhood pursuit of new stuff that is fun, a good laugh? 

MA: Oh, it's both, you know. Anybody who is a true hero out there questing every day for something... If they're serious about it every moment, then they're insane. You know, life is very complicated moment to moment. People who do science for a living, that's their job, their real job is – They're being told by everybody else, “You figure out this stuff that nobody else has been able to understand and you tell us what it means because we don't have the time to do it, so you do it”. They better keep themselves amused, they better keep themselves interested. And the best way to try to figure out the interesting parts, the parts that you don't understand is look at the parts that seem crazy, when something doesn't make sense. Well, it makes sense somehow, it exists. So it just means the way you're thinking about it doesn't work, try to think of some other way to think about it, try to think of some crazy way to look at it maybe, maybe that will help you make sense of it. And if you keep doing that enough, you will stumble onto some way that does make sense. And once you do that, then you get very, very serious about it. But until you find the right way that begins to make sense, all you can do is stumble and try things, which seems crazy. 

SS: You know scientists who actually win the Ig Nobel Prizes, when they're working on something the Ig Nobel worthy, are they aware of the irony at all? I mean, does someone actually pick an area to research knowing that it will be indeed quite funny? 

MA: Let's look at it this way. If you ever talk to a scientist, and this can be any scientist on any level, who has discovered something, and ask them what was it like. The first day that you thought of this, the first day you started to work on this, did everybody else understand that this was really important and great? The answer is always no. This is true of everything that we were taught in school, you know, we're taught that all these great scientific discoveries were made by geniuses and everybody understood at the first moment how wonderful it was. That's never true. If you go and look at the history, if you meet them, if you talk to them, when they first thought of it the first day, the people they worked with said, “That's stupid, you're wrong”. That's always how everything starts. And it's how things start with all of us every day, you know, even with your neighbours, with your family, you think of something to explain a little mystery in the family and people say, “No, you're wrong”. But if it turns out that you're right, later on, the whole story is – “She was a genius”, “She understood and the moment she told us, we understood how wonderful it was”. No, they didn't. They're pretending.  

SS: Do you know any cases when scientists actually worked intentionally to receive Ig Nobel Prizes?  

MA: Oh, sure. People try all the time. You know, we get something like 10,000 new nominations every year. And about 10 or 20% of those are people who nominate themselves. The ones who nominate themselves almost always lose. These prizes are strange. Ig Nobel prizes are not for the best something. They're also not for the worst something. They're only for things that make people laugh and then think. If that's what you're trying to do, you're trying to win an Ig Nobel Prize, you're trying to think of something that will make everybody laugh and then think, you are going to fail. It's really almost impossible to think of something that has that quality. It makes anybody laugh and think. That quality – it's an accident. And it's an accident you may not even realise yourself. Often when we call winners to offer them the prize and we offer the prize, you know, people can say no if they want to, most of them say yes. Often when we offer them that prize, that's the first moment the scientist realises that what they did is funny. To them what they were doing, it was just their work, it’s what they do every day. One example that always sticks with me is a team of scientists in Australia we gave a prize to about 15 years ago. They had published a study called “An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep Across Various Surfaces”. And think of that: an analysis of forces required to drag sheep across various surfaces... 

SS: That's pretty cool. 

MA: Yeah, it is. And it's pretty funny when you first hear about it. It was only during that phone call that they realised that what they did is funny to everybody else. You know, they live in a part of the world, they live in a part of Australia, where sheep is the big industry. And people in the industry had hired the scientists to come to spend a lot of time, watch everything we're doing, and then tell us how we can do it and make more money and do it more safely so we don't injure the sheep, and don't injure ourselves when we use these electric cutters. And so that's what these scientists did and they wrote a report. By the way, their most important discovery, they say — I've heard them say this many times — their biggest discovery is it's easier to drag a sheep downhill. 

SS: Than uphill? 

MA: Yes. 

SS: Okay. That's logical.  

MA: You seem to be laughing. The story behind this is in this industry there, as the industry grew, there are these places where the farmers will bring their sheep so that the wool can be cut off, and thousands of sheep can be brought in one day. As the industry grew, these buildings got bigger and bigger. And then people started to put new buildings next to them so you would have a building connected to another building by a tunnel connected to another building by a ramp. And of course, to move the sheep from one building to the next, you drag it because the sheep don't go where you tell them, you have to drag them. You drag it from that building over here. Well, how do you get there? You drag it up this ramp. And so every day for decades, all of these people have been dragging sheep uphill, and they never thought about it until these scientists said, “You're dragging sheep uphill, it's easier if you drag them the other direction — downhill.” 

SS: They really should have won, it's a good thing that they won this prize. 

MA: I agree. 

SS: Let’s talk about this year because it provided a fertile ground for all sorts of weird and hilarious inventions that would actually help adjust to the new reality, like we have, well, I don't know, hugging and kissing through sheets of plastic, –  

MA: Is that what you do? 

SS: I don’t do it, but I’ve read about this stuff. There’s also a hat made of swimming pool noodles that enforces social distancing, or a face mask with an automatic hole for eating. Have you considered any of those inventions for the prize? 

MA: Just a few of them. Part of what you're describing is new to me. Seems pretty strange. 

SS: But they're cool. They're funny, I think, no? 

MA: Yeah. And some of them might even turn out to be useful. 

SS: That's what I'm saying. 

MA: Who knows which ones? 

SS: Marc, your field is mathematics but, I mean, you’ve spent so many years both laughing and studying science. Tell me, do you in your non-representative sample of great scientists see a correlation between humour and intelligence? Do those scientists who know how to make or take a joke have actually better working brains than those who don't? 

MA: I don't know about that. I think they're a little happier than the others. And the reason for this is I have been told by many scientists is that their job is very frustrating. You know, a scientist comes to work every day, they're trying to figure out something nobody else can make sense of. And so every day, they're most likely to fail that day. That day, they're not going to succeed. Maybe tomorrow they will but that day, they're not going to. Well, if that's your job, that almost every day you're going to fail. It helps to have a sense of humour about it. You don't want to be – Well, you know, you come from a country that's famous for your literature where everybody is depressed all the time. Maybe that's because Russia has always been full of scientists who don't have a sense of humour about them.  

SS: We have a great sense of self-irony that really helps us get through. I mean, how do you think we’ve come so far? Just being depressed? No, no. We laugh about ourselves all the time. 

MA: I think that's the main thing. And I also mentioned one other thing. I think most people in the world, despite the reputation of a lot of people, not many people are really stupid. But I think the very few people who really are very stupid, they don't laugh very much. They don't have much of a sense of humour about themselves. And that's difficult. 

SS: With all this uncertainty and stress this year, I'm having an impression that faith in science is becoming a little bit more shaky among the general public. Do you feel that? 

MA: Yeah, I think that's true for a few reasons. Part of it is that around the world, there are now some people who are just automatically reacting to everything that happens by saying “that's wrong”, “don't trust it”. Another thing though that's happening is that, for the first time in a long, long time everybody is paying attention to scientists. So now, people are looking at what scientists actually do, rather than what the movie version of scientists do. In the movie version, the scientists understand everything before they even begin to look at it. That's not what really happens. What really happens is most of the time scientists are very confused about most things and they're not sure. And they spend most of their time trying to be less confused, trying to become a little more sure. They never, no scientist ever reaches the point where they completely understand everything. But if you just grow up and you watch the movies and all, your picture is scientists do understand everything. So I think what's happening right now is everybody now- Every day, you read the news, and you think about scientists for at least a minute, which you normally don't do. And you see that what they're doing, they're not sure yet. They think they have a vaccine that works, but they're not quite sure. Why aren't they sure? We know that scientists are always sure about things! Well, no, that's never what the scientists did. So what's really happened, I think, is scientists are now becoming real, rather than fictional characters for people, and real characters have some confusion and they work to try to [figure out]. 

SS: But that's where the humour question comes in, because a lot of the explanations that they're giving right now to us seem mind-boggling. And you know, we kind of have no other choice than to trust in them because they're like godlike creatures at this point because they're the only ones who have the answers to what we need. Not politicians, not businessmen...  

MA: Yeah, it's turning out that gods are not quite so perfect. They have a lot of confusion… 

SS: Do you think laughing about it is the right time right now? Do you know what I mean? 

MA: Yeah. 

SS:  Do you think it’s the right time to laugh…? 

MA: Think back to every great tragedy, every great piece of literature, every movie, and during the scariest times, as you just explained, that's when you start telling jokes to each other because you have to get through it. It keeps you calm enough that you can and you will get through it. But if you just give in to the fear, and you don't laugh about things ever, well, you just don't do anything. You just shrivel up. So it helps to laugh now. 

SS: I remember – well, I don't remember but I've watched movies a lot and I read the books – in the 50s and 60s, everyone was sort of in love with a white lab coat and glasses and believed in scientific progress. And now people get information from YouTube hacks and don't really trust the science any more.  

MA: Yeah, well, I think you're exactly right. People were in love with the white coat and the glasses, not with the person who was wearing the white coat and the glasses. The person, the scientist who was wearing the white coat and glasses was pretty confused and was working very hard just like them. But the stereotype version in the movies – those aren't people, those are like supermen, you know, those are superheroes or gods or something. They don't exist. 

SS: But the Ig Nobel prizes are usually handed out by actual Nobel laureates. When you invite them to take part in a ceremony, how do these honoured scientists react?

MA: Some of them are really happy and say “yes”. And some of them say “no, thank you”. 

SS: What’s the ratio? 

MA: We’re doing this for a long time, we’re doing this for 30 years now and things have started to change. Two years ago I got a message one afternoon from a radio producer in America. There's a big radio show called “Science Friday”. And he said we have one of the new Nobel Prize winners on, Frances Arnold, who was just announced two days ago that she's winning a Nobel Prize. So they had the first interview. And in the interview, they asked her, “Hey, now you've won a Nobel Prize, what are you going to do to take advantage of that? What are you going to do now that you're a Nobel Prize winner that you could never do before?” And her answer was, “I want to be part of the Ig Nobel ceremony”.  

SS: Oh, wow, that's so cool.  

MA: So they said, “You should get in touch”. So I did and we've been talking and three months ago, during this year's Ig Nobel ceremony, Frances Arnold was a big part of it, handing out the prizes. You could see from the look on her face, she was having a very good time. 

SS: And so what's the ratio if you compare those who say yes, and those who say no? 

MA: Oh, gee, I don't know. I've never really thought about that. I would say maybe one out of five says yes. Something like that. 

SS: Okay, well, that's good enough. 

MA: Yeah. Hey, let me tell you about something that involved the Nobel laureates and our laureates. This year, because of the pandemic, we could not have our usual ceremony in a big theater over here at Harvard University in the US, you know, with 1100 people in the audience, throwing paper airplanes and winners coming from around the world and Nobel Prize winners from around the world, we couldn't do that. So we had it over the internet, we had to do it secretly, and record the parts and put them together. And the most secret parts were – We have 10 new prizes every year, 10 winners in different parts of the world. Well, normally, the best part of it is the ten times during the night when I announce, “The winner of the biology prize is ... or whatever prize”, and then the winner steps out and Nobel Prize winner steps out and hands them a prize and shakes their hand. We couldn't do that. But we wanted to do it. Here's the problem we had and we solved it. The problem is, when you have a Nobel Prize winner on one continent, and you have an Ig Nobel Prize winner on a whole different continent, how can you arrange it that the one person can physically hand a prize to the other person? 

SS: You mean, physically hand or visually, it looks like? 

MA: Physically. And here's how we solved it. The prize is always different every year, it's a physical prize, there's some of them in back of me, you know, up on the top of the shelf there, maybe you can see some them. And the design is a little different every year, they're always made of very cheap materials, which makes them more fun. And this year, the prize was on the theme of bugs, because we have a theme every year. So this year, we made the prize in the form of something that was a document, a PDF document that we could send through the internet, to everybody, to the winners and to the Nobel Prize winners. And they printed it out and then they would fold it and attach the pieces and have their prize. And here's what it is. It's a box –  

SS: Oh, wow. 

MA: You have a picture of a different kind of bug on every side, you know, cockroach, a flea, a Volkswagen bug, a computer bug. And then on the sixth side, there are instructions about how to build this prize for yourself.  

SS: Oh, that's cool.  

MA: So we email these around the world and during the secret meetings that I would introduce, you know, “The winner of the physics prize is…” and, you know, they're in Australia and the Nobel laureate is in America, I think, for that prize, and the Nobel laureate would say, “Congratulations! And I'm going to give you the prize”, and they would hold up the prize and then would hand it off side of the screen like that. And then you would see in the Zoom meeting, you would see the winners reach out and pull in the prize.  

SS: That is pretty cool. I gotta give it to you. 

MA: Yeah, and what was even better about it was sometimes we give a prize to a team. So maybe seven people there and – 

SS: And all of them would pull it out?  

MA: Yeah. So you see on the screen, the Nobel laureate has it and the seven people. Well, if you have seven people, you know, maybe five of them will reach out that side. But the other two might reach out that side. So they're all looking kind of confused and enjoying it and proud at the same moment. 

SS: I think it's really brilliant and witty, and this is exactly what we needed this year, because we needed some cheering up. And I think you're doing a great thing making people laugh and making people wittier and developing a sense of self-irony and keep up the good work.  

MA: Thanks. 

SS: I'm really glad that we got to do this. 

MA: Let me invite you and everybody who's watching, if you know about somebody who should win an Ig Nobel prize, they've done something that makes you laugh and then think and you're pretty sure anybody in the world would have that same reaction, let us know, just send us a message over the internet or whatever. That's how we learn about most of these people around the world because somewhere, one person knew about this and they told us and then we looked into it. 

SS: See, everybody heard that? Everybody heard Marс? If you know someone who has invented something that makes you laugh, make sure that we know it so we give the information to Marс - maybe he's the next Ig Nobel Prize winner. Thank you so much, Marc. It was great talking to you.  

MA: Thanks Sophie. 

SS: So this is a quite unusual festive season – we needed to adapt our Christmas plans to a new norm, new realities, but I think one thing stayed the same. Christmas is about love, forgiveness and being together with the ones that we care for, if we can be with them. So I still wish you a very, very Merry Christmas, surrounded with love and happiness. Please take care of yourselves. Be safe and stay healthy.