A true scientific discovery is always funny at first – Ig Nobel prize founder

Among the winners of the Ig Nobel prize is the person who invented karaoke, scientists that say love is OCD, and a man who dressed rats in tiny pants to study their behavior. The Ig Nobel prize celebrates the bizarre, the weird – and most importantly – funniest achievements and discoveries of human kind. But does it does serve a greater purpose than just making people laugh? And what drives scientists to study things others would consider bizarre? We ask the founder of the Ig Nobel Prize, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research magazine, Marc Abrahams.

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Sophie ShevardnadzeThe founder of the Ig Nobel Prize, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research magazine, Marc Abrahams. Marc, it's great to have you with us, welcome to the show. Now, tell me something: is getting an Ig Nobel prize belittling or actually ignoble for scientists - or is it an honor?

Marc Abrahams: Of course, I cannot speak for what's in somebody's mind. It's more an honor then not. When we give a prize, almost always, we first get in touch with the person, very quietly, and we offer them the prize, we give them the chance to decline, to turn down this great honor if they want to. So, if somebody says "no" - they don't get the prize. So, everybody who's getting the prize, has , pretty much, agreed to do it, and then they come here to the U.S. at their own expense to be a part of the Ig Nobel prize ceremony.

SS:But you feel like it's an honor, right?

MA: Oh yeah. It means you've done something that makes people laugh and then think - and that's kind of wonderful in its way. There are, what, seven billion people on the planet, more or less, and that's a lot of people, and for most people, including especially scientists, no matter what you do during your lifetime, almost nobody ever notices. If you are awarded an Ig Nobel prize, you're going to get some attention from the world. So, for a lot of winners it’s an opportunity to have people pay attention.

SS:That's for sure, but I know, for instance, the chemistry Ig Nobel prize went to Volkswagen this year for coming up with innovative ways to hide emissions from state regulators - now that’s obviously jeering at their attempt to cheat, that's not very honorable, is it?

MA: You can think of it as an appreciation. For Volkswagen, we tried to get in touch with them, it's a big corporation, so we were never able to find the right person. You know, all these prizes have nothing to do with good or bad. So, in a way, I wasn't giving you a good answer and actual answer before, as to whether this is an honor: it's hard to say. Every other prize in the world is for the best of things, you know, the Olympics, for the best athletes - or the worst of things, the "worst-dressed" awards, for worst-dressed people, but the Ig Nobel, it has nothing to do with good or bad. It has only to do with whether you've done something that makes people laugh and then think.

SS: Ignobels are a spoof prize, a sarcastic award, but you’ve said most people who receive it never refuse - why is that, are your laureates not afraid of being laughed at? I mean, if I were to be awarded "worst-dressed" of the year, I'll be horrified, I wouldn't go outside of my apartment.

MA: Yeah, that's the "Worst Dressed" award, but as I said, it has nothing to do with good or bad, a lot of these things that win prizes are wonderful and some of them are the opposite of wonderful, but there are lot of things in the world that are funny, they happen to be funny in addition to whatever else they are: they are important and they're funny, they're worthless and they're funny. So, this is for a combination of things and it's a very unusual thing, something that forces you to laugh and then to think about it.

SS:But the thing about laughing also has two sides to it: do you feel that laughing at someone’s research ends up belittling it? I mean, maybe the scientific community doesn’t mean it this way, but the scientists are mocked for doing seemingly useless or 'funny' research, like you put it -- that could be offensive to someone?

MA: We're not mocking them. This is why we give people the opportunity to say "No" - but in most cases, in these things, they themselves realize that it's funny, and that's the whole thing about science - when there's a true scientific discovery, that's unexpected, it's so unexpected that it's funny. That's almost the only reaction that a person could have: "I never expected that the world, that the universe works like this". The discovery, a couple or so centuries ago, that there are these little tiny bugs, everywhere, that we can't see, that have an effect on us - that seemed crazy, that seemed insane, that seemed funny. It also happens to be true.

SS:So you don't feel like the Ig Nobel prize does a disservice to science by making it a laughing stock?

MA: No... no. It's not why we are doing this. We are trying to do things that are so unusual, that they're pleasing, they make you laugh, in most cases, because it's the good kind of laughter, it's "I never dreamed that things could be like this" kind of laughter.

SS:Okay. So, like you've said, almost everyone accepts it, but there are some people, I assume, who decline, since you give them a chance, privately, to decline this honor - what happens in these cases? Is the award given to the next candidate in line?

MA: Yeah, it's kind of rare that somebody says "No", but if somebody says "No", then that's the end of the conversation. We don't tell anybody and we give the prize to somebody else.

SS: Has it happened?

MA: It happens, every year or two, there's somebody, and in some of those cases, they later got in touch with us and said they made a mistake, they wish they had accepted the prize. Well, so it goes. We had one prize we gave in the year 2000, to a man named Andre Geim, he was Russian...

SS:Oh my God, I was just going to ask you about him.

MA: Pardon me for bringing it up, why don't you ask me a question?

SS: Same thing, 10 years after receiving the Ig Nobel prize, Andre Geim has been awarded the real Nobel prize in physics for discovering graphene, which is a material that’s set to transform the electronics industry. He got the Ig Nobel prize for using magnets to levitate a frog. How does one go from flying frogs to serious inventions?

MA: I see you’re laughing here. This is something about magnetism that a few scientists knew about, but almost no scientist remembered, and when Andre Geim and his colleague re-discovered this, they thought: "None of our colleagues are going to believe us, so we better do something that seems so completely crazy that they'll pay attention" - and that's why they chose to levitate a frog, and people did pay attention. Ten years later, Andre got the Nobel Prize for something else, but the details of that also are kind of goofy - you know, they were playing around with some pencil, with scotch tape and paper then they discovered the way to get this substance, this graphene, this two-dimensional form of carbon, that scientists knew - in theory - existed, but they've never been able to get enough of it before to do experiments. So that experiment was also kind of goofy and funny looking, although people now just remember that it's important, but it was also goofy.

SS:Does a true scientist need to have a sense of humour?

MA: Well, does a true human being need a sense of humor? I think it's the real question. If you're doing science, it helps, scientists are trying to figure out things that nobody else was able to figure out, ever, and that means that most of the time, they are going to fail. Most of their job is to try something, try something, have it fail, try something, have it fail, try something, have it fail... Once in awhile, they get lucky and they discover something. If you know that most of your job is going to be failure, it really helps to have a sense of humor, to help you get through life and stay cheerful and keep working.

SS:So what does the Ig Nobel prize look like? Can you tell us what it is this year?

MA: Every year, the prize is different. It's handmade, from cheap, inexpensive, materials. Here's the prize this year. Our theme this year was "Time" - we have a theme for this ceremony. As you can see, it's a round clock, but it's an unusual clock: each of the hands is a little hourglass, filled with sand, and as the hands of the clock move around, the sand is shifting. There's another unusual thing about it, too: this year, 2016 is the year that's going to have one extra second - a leap second, added at the end of the year, and our clock has an extra second - it has got 61 seconds. The other thing I'll mention, as you've noticed, there are letters here, and they spell out the word: "Ig Nobel Prize", as you go clockwise around the clock.

SS:That's a pretty impressive invention. When you decide who to give the award to, what’s more important - it being funny or having merit?

MA: Merit has nothing to do with it, and lack of merit has nothing to do with it. Again, the criterion, and that's the only criterion for winning a prize is you have done something that makes people laugh and then think. You've done something so that people first hear about it - people anywhere in the world, no matter what their background is, will laugh, but a week later they're still thinking about it and they want to tell their best friends about it. That's what wins you the prize. Maybe we should talk about some specific prizes...

SS:You’ve given out a mathematics prize to the head of Zimbabwe’s central bank for printing 100 trillion dollar bills - how does that make one think?

MA: I hope it makes you think! In Zimbabwe, a few years ago, they had a little problem with inflation of their money, and they started printing bills in larger and larger amounts, and they started printing million dollar bills, billion dollar bills, ten billion dollar bills... they got up as high as one hundred trillion dollar bill; and at the same time as the government was printing bills that said "100 trillion dollars", the head of the national bank also had them print a bill that said: "One Cent". So think about that. The government's printing bills in 100 trillion dollar amounts and one cent. This is unusual.

SS: What's there to think about? Their economy is messed up and there's default on the country, happens all the time.

MA: Well, there was thinking. Gideon Gono- the name of the man who was the head of the country's national prize, and he won an Ig Nobel Prize for mathematics for doing this - he wrote an entire book to explain to people of Zimbabwe and the whole world why he was doing this and why he thinks this was important, and he said: "Look, when you have to spend large amounts of money, like 100 trillion dollars, when you spend it, you still have to make change, and that's why you need these 1 cent coins" - if you think about that, that's rather unusual! Deserves some kind of prize, does it not?

SS:When you put it that way, it certainly does.

How do you even find all these studies? Do you go through every single publication in every single journal to find something eccentric?

MA: Everything is eccentric if you'll look at it the right way. We're always looking for things, and "we" is about a hundred people, the Ig Nobel board of governors spread around the world, but more than that, we've been doing this for 26 years, and it's got to be fairly well-known - every day, every single day, I get a flood of nominations from around the world. Anybody can send in a nomination, so if somebody listening today knows about a person who deserves an Ig Nobel Prize - tell us. We get, in a typical year, about nine thousand or so of new nominations, and anything that we don't give a prize to this year, we look at again next year. So, there's a lot of stuff out there. I should mention - it's not just science. We give prizes in other fields - for example, we gave a prize, one year, to the man who invented karaoke. He's Japanese, as you've might expect, and we gave him Ig Nobel Peace Prize - pretty much every year we have a Peace Prize. We gave the inventor of karaoke the Peace prize rather than some other category, because by inventing karaoke, he invented an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other.

SS:That, or get drunk and beat each other up - because that happens a lot in the karaoke too. At least that's the way it goes in Russia. So...

MA: ...Not everybody learns when given the opportunity.

SS: So you've mentioned your team - who are they? Who does the choosing? You have your own Ig Nobel Prize committee?

MA: Oh yeah, it's about hundred people, it's the editors of my magazine, the Annals of Improbable Research, a few people who've won Ig Nobel Prizes, a few people who have won Nobel Prizes, some journalists, some teachers and some people who have no connection to anything - we tried for a real mix of people; people who are filled with curiosity.

SS: Who does the funding for all those improbable researches? Are those universities - or private investors?

MA: You're asking a really big question here, so I'll try to give you a five-hour answer, compressed to one minute...

SS: You have a minute.

MA: Now I feel nervous. Every case is different. Some of these things are funded with government money, and whatever country it is, some of them are funded by corporate money, private money. A lot of these are just not funded at all, it's something that some scientist or somebody just did on their own. A lot of these are very small experiments. And with science, even more than with most things, something can look completely insane on the outside, and when you hear details you see - "Well, these people had a pretty good reason for doing this", but sometimes it takes more than 20 seconds to explain that. There's a lot of stuff in the world, and maybe if you think about what you do every day when you come to work, what do you do every day from ten o'clock in the morning till 10:15 - if you write down in great detail what you do, that might look insane, and the fact that you're being paid to do it might look kind of crazy, but the fact is - you are being paid to do it and probably there's a reasonably good reason for you doing things. So, it's a nice question and it has a long answer.

SS:But still, like, your laureates, they usually stand out, they are quite extraordinary. One scientist dressed rats in polyester pants...

MA: Oh yes, that's why we choose them.

SS:Another attached prosthetic limbs to himself and lived like a goat in the Swiss alps - do they realise how bizarre and wacky their experiments appear to the outside world?

MA: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. There have been a few cases when we telephoned them and offered them the prize, that was the first moment that they realized that what they've done seemed funny. The one that sticks in my mind is there's a prize that we gave about 10 years ago to a team of scientists in Australia. They had spent a year doing experiments and they published a scientific paper with the title: "An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep Across Various Surfaces" - they have been doing some work, they live in Australia, and in part of Australia where sheep is the big industry, and the people who run some of the big industries, they have asked them: "Come in, spend some times, tell us what we're doing not efficiently and improve it" - and so they did. One of the things they discovered is that the sheep that are brought in every now and then to be sheared, to have their wool cut off, and they are brought into these huge buildings, there's thousands of sheep, big electric cutters... It's very dangerous, a lot of sheep are injured, a lot of people are injured. And any efficiency could add up to a lot of money, because it's a lot of sheep passing through here. One thing they discovered - it's that easy - that it was easier to drag a sheep down hill.

SS:Right. Ten years of research.

MA: Yeah. But the fact was - a lot of these buildings where they do things things, they were dragging the sheep uphill rather than down. So, it's a simple thing, but it took them a year to realize that - and it ended up making a huge amount of money for that industry. It's kind of funny, I think.

SS: I want to talk about another prize that you gave. Japanese scientists got the prize this year for proving that a person sees things differently when - for example - standing with your head upside down, it makes things appear smaller. I mean, it’s interesting, but....

MA: Have you tried that yourself?

SS: I have, I just don't understand...

MA: Why don't you try it right now?

SS:I can't, because I'm tied down with some wires, but I have, right before this show.

MA: You're tied down with wires?

SS: Yeah, I have to hear you and I have to talk into microphone. But I have tried it right before the show, and it's really funny, and I got, like, the energy boost, because blood went to my brain - but I still don't see the relevance to the real world, what’s the usefulness of this knowledge?

MA: Well, now you're wondering about it, you're thinking about it, so our goal is met, we've succeeded, you've laughed at it and now you're thinking about it. If you look into details of it, you'll find out that there were a lot of questions about how the eyes and the brain connect and how images are interpreted in my minds. It turned out that a lot of these questions get focused very directly when you ask this very odd question of how's the world is seeming to be different when you're looking upside down. So, I urge you here, got look at the scientist's paper and it will open new worlds to you.

SS: Alright.

MA: I'd further urge you to stand on your head while you read it, but it's not necessary.

SS:That should be the next step, I should take it little by little. It may be a little too much altogether.

MA: Yeah, after they remove the wires.

SS:You’ve met all these people who do this research...

MA: They do remove the wires from you, you don't stay there 24 hours a day?...

SS:They do.

MA: Oh, good.

SS: Otherwise they will be your next Ig Nobel Prize if they did that, I suppose, right?

MA: I'll keep that in mind, thank you!

SS:So tell me about all these scientists that you meet, you know them personally, I assume - how does one, for instance, decide to dedicate months or even years of life to study homosexual necrophilia among ducks, is it just curiosity?

MA: You are asking about a very unusual case! That was a prize we gave in 2003 to a scientist in the Netherlands, his name is Kees Moeliker. He studies birds, and he didn't spend all his life - this was a case where he happened to notice something unusual one day. He runs a museum, a Natural History museum in the city of Rotterdam, and the museum had built a new part of the museum that's all glass on the outside. Birds sometimes don't see the glass and they smash into it. So the people who work there got used to hearing this <<SLAPPING SOUND>> sound. But one day, he was sitting there, and he heard a really loud bang. So he went and he looked out of the window and he noticed something unusual - and it took notes. That became the first scientifically reported case of homosexual necrophilia...

SS: Among ducks.

MA: One species of duck! But it's only because he noticed something this one thing, and he spent the next hour looking and taking notice.

SS: Would you say it's just curiosity to drive someone to dedicate all this time to a topic like that?

MA: Oh yeah, scientists are people who are filled with curiosity of various kinds, that's why they're scientists. Most scientists spend a long time looking at first one thing and then another trying to figure out... They're not just sitting there stupidly, staring at the thing all day long - they're poking and prodding it and trying to come up with ideas and test them, and try to be really,really diligent about coming up with what's true answer here rather than just 'my guess' - and almost anything they're looking at is going to seem kind of strange to somebody who doesn't spend all that time. Fortunately, there are people who are going to spend their lives doing this stuff, because some of them discover things that make the rest of our lives a little bit better. Some of them discover things that make it a little worse, but eh.

SS:Who is your favorite Ig Nobel laureate?

MA: Oh, there have been quite a few. The disoverer of homoxecual necrophilia among mallard ducks has become a good friend and does all sorts of unusual things, but oh there's so many more. There's one scientist who did some calculations about the old question of "If you take a piece of toast" - you know, put butter on toast and then you drop it - there's this old belief that if you drop a piece butter toast, it will always land on buttered said. Was that true? It turns out the physics of it says yeah, that is true - more often than not, it will fall on butter side.

SS: How many pieces of toast did he test it on?

MA: He had schoolchildren in England, I think there were about 10,000 schoolchildren, all simultaneously drop pieces of toast - so first he did the calculations and then he had all these schoolchildren do it, and it turned out that the calculations were correct.

SS:Pretty impressive. Anyways, I'd talk to you for hours, but unfortunately, my program's up. It was really fun and interesting talking to you...

MA: Good luck with those wires and things!

SS: Thanks, we're going to get to it once we're done here. Thanks for your really funny insight, we were talking to Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prize and the editor of the Annals of Improbable Research magazine, exploring the weird side of science and why silly research is important. That's it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.