Thursday, April 9, 1998

by Peter Rowe

How's the Salk Institute's grub? Two petri dishes up!     

"It is eatable," gushed Sandrine Carteau, a post-doc
student of infectious diseases from Paris, lingering over
a gyro.

"The turkey burger is able to accommodate large quantities
of ketchup and mayo," raved Rick Bushman, an assistant
professor of infectious diseases.

"The food is all right," enthused Bert Kohler, an
electrical engineering doctoral candidate from Berlin,
"compared to other cafeterias. It is not as good as the
food my mother cooks."

Marc Abrahams took notes. He sniffed the vegetable soup,
savored an onion ring, ate half a gyro. The publisher of
Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), a journal he
describes as "the Mad magazine of science," Abrahams is a
cafeteria connoisseur.

After reviewing dining halls at the Stanford Linear
Accelerator Center, Carnegie Mellon University, Scripps
Research Institute and other research facilities, Abrahams
understands our lab-coated gourmets' unique standards.

At the University of Cincinnati Medical School, a doctor
labeled the fare a 5.

"A 1 being a hot dog vendor on the street," he told
Abrahams. "A 10, a good quality McDonald's."

Tomato tossing

Genius must be fed, as must an interest in science. Alas,
many find this field as appetizing as a cold broccoli

"A lot of us had teachers who scared the hell out of us
about science, probably because they were scared by
science," said Abrahams, 42, who conquered these fears
while acquiring an applied mathematics degree from
Harvard. "I think we can make life better for some of
those people by seducing them into being curious about
things again."

In 1994, Abrahams founded AIR, "The Journal of Record for
Inflated Research and Personalities." Six times a year,
the Cambridge, Mass., magazine highlights such
improbabilities as genuine, yet hard to believe, research
papers; "Ask Symmetra," advice from a
scientist-supermodel; and interviews with the world's
great minds.

AIR: Has the quality of tomato throwing declined over the

Edmond Fischer, 1992 Nobel laureate in medicine: I think
so. People don't go to the theater anymore -- they look at
TV sets. You can't throw tomatoes at a TV set. Yes, tomato
throwing has declined very much.

The cafeteria reviews rank among AIR's greatest hits,
measuring notable establishments in three areas:

Quality: Ranging from i, the square root of -1, when "the
food is of good quality only in your imagination," to pi,
where the meals are "widely accepted as delicious."

Trendiness: The cafeteria at the Karolinska Institute in
Stockholm -- host of the Nobel Prizes -- is trendy. The
Princess Margaret Dining Hall at the University of
Swansea, Wales, is not.

Bearded men index: On the walls, how many pictures of
bearded men?

Mmmm, chewy!

Abrahams was here recently to deliver a few talks, promote
his book ("The Best of Annals of Improbable Research,"
W.H. Freeman and Co., $14.95) and -- with a team of
specialists -- review the Salk cafeteria. How are the

"Chewy. They remind me of doughnuts," said Ross Porter,
with Cox Communications' media relations and promotions
department. "Like a maple bar."

"Maple bars are the last thing I'd think of," said Sally
Shelton, head of the Natural History Museum's Collections,
Care and Conservation Department.  "There is serious
grease, though."

Most tables held several live bearded men. The walls
lacked images of the species, though, and the tiny cafe
seems leery of its clientele. Note the sign on the door:
"No Lab Coats in Cafeteria."

Salk's cafeteria is impersonal, cramped, smells of frying
meat. It resembles a good McDonald's.

	(c) copyright San Diego Union-Tribune 1998