The Baltimore Sun 
February 21, 1997
Friday, FINAL EDITION 

MASTERMIND OF SCIENTIFIC HUMOR; MAGAZINE: 
MARC ABRAHAMS USES HIS ANNALS OF 
IMPROBABLE RESEARCH SATIRE TO REACH 
PEOPLE AFRAID OF SCIENCE. 

By Doug Birch -- Special to the Sun 


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. - Marc Abrahams pads around his 
cozy, cat-infested apartment here, surrounded by stacks of 
papers detailing subversively silly theories, wildly 
improbable hypotheses and dangerously whimsical 
experiments. 

The 41-year-old Harvard graduate and former software 
entrepreneur, who is generally as deadpan as Buster Keaton, 
could be just another academic in a city crowded with them. 

Instead, he is the satirical mastermind behind a science 
humor empire: Abrahams is editor in chief of the Annals of 
Improbable Research, an amalgam of real research, such as 
effects of LSD on Siamese fighting fish, mixed with bogus 
articles, such as one on how to catch meteorites in Antarctica 
with butterfly nets and baseball gloves. 

Annals authors have calculated the odds of being abducted 
by aliens, reported on the aerodynamic properties of potato 
chips and studied the relationship between apples and 
oranges. They have pondered why tornadoes prefer to hit 
trailer parks, offered a solution to the problem of whether 
something is half-full or half-empty and tried to quantify the 
degree to which doornails are dead. 

Nobel spoof raises eyebrows 

Despite this ground-breaking research, the publication 
reaches a relatively tiny readership. While the journal's free 
Internet publication, Mini-AIR, has about 200,000 readers, 
it is not well-known outside scientific circles. 

It is Abrahams' annual spoof of the Nobel prizes that has 
earned him international recognition. 

The Ig Nobel awards are held each fall, about the time the 
real Nobels are handed out in Stockholm, Sweden. While 
the Nobels are solemn affairs, the Igs are a multiring circus 
of 30-second speeches, song parodies, scantily clad research 
assistants, paper-airplane throwing spectators and white-
maned Nobel laureates (real ones) dressed in silly clothes.

 (The awards, handed out to honor "research that cannot or 
should not be reproduced," are named after Alfred Nobel's 
imaginary cousin, Ignatius, the supposed inventor of 
excelsior and soda pop.) 

When the first Ig Nobel ceremony was held at MIT in 1991, 
just 350 people showed up. Admission was free. Last 
October, about 1,200 people shelled out $ 10 each for seats 
in Sanders Theater at Harvard's Memorial Hall. 

During the ceremony, organizers awarded a Purdue scientist 
the chemistry prize for lighting a barbecue in a world-record 
three seconds by using liquid oxygen. French President 
Jacques Chirac won the Peace Prize for commemorating the 
50th anniversary of Hiroshima with atomic tests in the 
Pacific. American tobacco executives were honored for their 
surprising discovery, announced to Congress, that nicotine 
is not addictive. 

While some of the world's most respected scientists cavort 
on stage during the festivities, not everyone gets the joke. 
Some researchers grumble that they get little enough respect 
from the public as it is, without a journal that seems devoted 
to making fun of them. In 1995, the Ig Nobel in physics 
went to three British authors of a paper on why cereal goes 
soggy in milk ("The effects of water content on the 
compaction behavior of breakfast flakes"). They happily 
accepted the honor. But a British tabloid named the Sun (no 
relation to this newspaper) learned of the award and blasted 
the research: 

"Barmy scientists have spent 100,000 pounds of taxpayers' 
money finding out why cornflakes go soggy when you pour 
milk on them," the paper reported. "Last night the potty 
project - funded by the Ministry of Agriculture - had critics 
going crackle and pop." 

The criticism stung Sir Robert May, Britain's chief science 
adviser. He wrote an angry letter to Abrahams. 

"I wrote back and explained the Ig was very much to support 
science and we're careful, always, not to do something that 
could hurt a scientist's career," Abrahams recalls. He told 
May he wanted to celebrate quirky research, not condemn it. 

May wrote a second letter. 

"And he was really angry," Abrahams says. 

May was still smarting months later when he warned the 
British journal Nature that the Igs could erode support for 
"genuine" science. But a number of British researchers, 
proud of their nation's reputation for coddling eccentrics, 
disagreed. Chemistry and Industry magazine shot back in an 
editorial titled: "We Are Amused." 

"Far from a convincing case for the pernicious effect of the 
Ig Nobels," the editorial said, "May's misfire only makes 
him (and British science) look thin-skinned and humorless. 
He mistakes discomfort for disaster, and solemnity for 
seriousness. Long may British scientists take their rightful 
places in the Ig Nobel honour roll." 

This tempest in a test tube certainly didn't hurt press 
coverage of the awards. Last fall, the world's two most 
prestigious scientific journals, Science and Nature, reported 
on the winners. So did Scientific American and Britain's 
New Scientist. National Public Radio and C-SPAN 
broadcast taped versions of the event. The Times of London 
reported that "Britain was honoured" as Dr. Robert 
Matthews of Aston University garnered the Ig Nobel in 
physics for a scholarly paper that explained why toast falling 
off the edge of a table almost always lands with its buttered 
side down. Matthews sent an audio tape of his acceptance 
speech. 

While some winners shun their awards, about half accept 
them and either attend the ceremony or send a representative. 

"Among the winners who are not in prison, it's a much 
higher percentage," Abrahams says. 

Abrahams graduated from Harvard in 1978 with a degree in 
applied mathematics, then worked for many years in the 
computer industry. Eventually, he launched his own 
software firm, Wisdom Simulators, which tried to use 
computers to teach executives how to make difficult 
decisions. In his spare time, he wrote satirical pieces about 
science, but "I couldn't find anyplace that would publish my 
stuff." 

Then he heard about the Journal of Irreproducible Results, a 
science humor magazine founded in 1955. Abrahams sent an 
article to the journal, and the publisher called to offer him the 
job of editor. Abrahams worked at the Journal for four 
years, but he clashed with the publisher. 

A difficult transition 

He quit and established his own magazine, the Annals of 
Improbable Research, published in conjunction with the MIT 
Museum. That lasted for about a year. Now he publishes the 
magazine out of his apartment. 

But the transition for Abrahams has been difficult. He 
couldn't use the Journal's subscriber list to solicit new 
readers, of course. So while the Journal had a circulation of 
about 4,000 in 1990, Annals - a slim, 32-page publication - 
has few ads and a circulation of only about 2,500. 
Subscribers pay $ 23 a year for six issues. 

Still, AIR has its influential supporters. Its editorial board 
consists of 40 distinguished - or at least tenured - scientists 
from around the world, including eight Nobel Laureates and 
one convicted felon: computer savant Robert T. Morris of 
Harvard, whose Internet worm earned him a criminal record 
and a hallowed place in hacker history. 

Between sips of coffee in Harvard Square, Abrahams says 
humor is a good way to get people to think about science, 
because then they stop worrying that it's too difficult to 
grasp. 

"A big part of what I hope we're doing," he says, "is 
showing people who are scared of science that they can 
understand it." 

Copyright 1997 The Baltimore Sun Company