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Head case: The Ig Nobel Awards have inspired jaw-dropping disbelief.

Oddities of Science

Think science isn't funny? Guess again.


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THAT ALBERT Einstein. For a physicist, he sure had a great sense of humor. Most people have seen the posters of the guy: wild-haired, bright-eyed, sticking his tongue out at the camera. And we've read Einstein's quirky quips and quotes: "Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the universe."

Really now, who'd have thought a scientist would turn out to be so funny?

Science is, after all, a dry, academic, humorless discipline, a realm of facts and figures and dangerous exploding chemicals. It's a solemn business. Scientists, the chosen acolytes of the scientific flame, tend to be sober-minded people. Like nuns and DMV workers, they have little tolerance for tomfoolery or unrestrained silliness. Right?

Uh, wrong.

"What very few people realize," declares Marc Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, in Cambridge, Mass., and the founder of the annual Ig Nobel Awards, "is that scientists are among the funniest people on the planet."

He's serious.

"There are a few completely humorless scientists who take themselves and their work much too seriously," Abrahams admits, "and it is these people who give a bad reputation to everyone else. Scientists are the ones trying to solve the problems no one else can figure out. If you don't keep a sense of humor about it, you'll be miserable."

We should not doubt him. Under Abrahams' guidance, the AIR has become the world's leading "science humor" magazine. That's right: science humor. Staffed by writers trained in the scientific method and possessed of a wicked sense of irony, AIR is, in part, a conscious attempt to make science more inviting to an intimidated world at large. To that end, Abrahams and company scour academic journals in search of stories that reveal the wacky, eccentric underbelly of the scientific process. By reporting on scientific achievements that "cannot or should not be reproduced," the AIR allows scientists and nonscientists to laugh out loud.

That laughter grows loudest once a year, when AIR presents the illustrious Ig Nobel Awards, handed out every October--coinciding with the announcements of the Nobel Prizes--to 10 recipients whose achievements have inspired the highest degree of jaw-dropping disbelief. This year's winners--honored in a supremely silly ceremony that took place at Harvard University on Oct. 5--include Richard Wassersug, who published a paper titled On the Comparative Palatability of Some Dry-Season Tadpoles from Costa Rica. It involved a firsthand tadpole taste-test, and was, in fairness, a serious attempt to understand why certain tadpoles are avoided by amphibian-eating predators. Another winner, honored with the prize for literature, was the infamous Australian "Breatharian," Jasmuheen, whose book Living on Light shares the notion that while some humans do eat food, we don't ever really need to. This year's Peace Prize went to the British Royal Navy, for ordering its sailors to undergo target practice in which they refrain from using live cannon shells and instead simply shout, "Bang!"

Now a 10-year-old tradition, the Ig Nobel ceremony is perhaps the strangest scientific celebration going. It certainly stands as proof positive that scientists do indeed have a sense of humor. In addition to the winner's acceptance speeches--which, according to tradition, must conclude in less than 60 seconds to avoid interruption from Miss Sweetie Poo, an adorable 9-year-old sent out to whine, "Please stop, I'm bored. Please stop, I'm bored!"--the celebration includes the Brain Food opera (performed by actual Nobel Prize winners), the Great Intelligence Debate (a contest of 30-second speeches shouted simultaneously), and the ritual distribution of plastic bubble-wrap "Fish Brains." As it has for the past several years, the October ceremony will be broadcast Nov. 24 (the day after Thanksgiving) at 11 a.m., on NPR's Talk of the Nation Science Friday.

SENSE of humor notwithstanding, one has to wonder how the recipients of an Ig Nobel respond to being told they've just won. "There's usually a long pause after they hear the news," admits Abrahams. "But really, a surprising number of them are pleased about it. Most of the others are tolerant, or at least amused." He insists that the Ig Nobels are not meant to ridicule the winners, but to honor them for having the courage to go where no one's gone before. "A scientific achievement can seem pretty ridiculous and still have something significant to contribute. That's the history of science. Every important breakthrough we know was once thought to be absolutely nuts," says Abrahams. "Besides, most of our winners are just happy their work was noticed at all."

Larry Friend, a Petaluma geologist who works for Harding ESE Inc., an environmental services firm in Marin County, says he'd consider it an honor to receive an Ig Nobel. "Any type of award, either realistic or ignominious, would be great," he confirms. A walking-talking example of a funny scientist, Friend keeps a large file of science-related jokes and humorous essays, documents he gleefully distributes to his colleagues far and wide. "Being a scientist gets depressingly overwhelming unless you can poke fun at what you're doing," he says. "Scientists are treated as second-class citizens. I mean, you can make a lot more money doing other things. Here I am, among the smartest 10 percent of all people in the country, and I can't make any money.

"Actually, that's pretty funny when you think of it," he adds. "Maybe I'm not that smart after all."

Nicholas Geist, a professor of paleontology at Sonoma State University, has another theory as to why people think scientists are humorless people. It begins in elementary school, Geist hypothesizes.

"Science textbooks just suck in elementary school," he says.

Beyond that, Geist, a longtime fan of the AIR, agrees with Abrahams, observing that "some of the funniest people in the world are scientists. "On the other hand," he says, "some of the most self-absorbed, boring people I've ever met are scientists. If scientists have a bad reputation, it's scientists' own fault. A lot of scientists, particularly young scientists at the beginning of their careers, tend to be all 'Science! the Search for Truth with a capital T.'

"I'll always remember what this one old paleontologist at Oregon State once told me. 'Good science is an internally consistent set of lies.' "

Now there's a line one might expect to hear in an Ig Nobel acceptance speech.

One thing's for sure, Einstein would probably get a chuckle out of it.

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From the November 23-29, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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