Stanford Report

April 15, 1998


Theories of improbability: Gum-chewing
Nobelists talk silly science

BY LILA GUTERMAN

A paper airplane whizzed through the air and
hit Stanford Nobel laureate Martin Perl in
the head before he answered the first
question in an interview Wednesday evening,
April 8. He and fellow SLAC Nobelist Richard
Taylor were grilled about chewing gum in
front of an audience of 200 people in
Stanford's Terman Auditorium.

Their interviewer was Marc Abrahams, editor
of the irreverent science magazine The
Annals of Improbable Research. Abrahams was
at Stanford to promote the new book, The
Best of Annals of Improbable Research. The
result was an evening of silly science.

Abrahams chomped on gum as they discussed
the lofty topic, and he offered the two
Nobelists their own sticks.

"How often do you chew gum?" Abrahams asked
them.

"Whenever I get a bad idea," said Perl,
munching away.

"Same," responded Taylor. "Never."

The airplane-throwing audience laughed upon
learning that Perl uses gum to stick his
telephone to his desk and to plug vacuum
leaks. But Taylor adamantly denied using
chewing gum. "I'm more used to bubble gum,"
he said.

On a rare note in earnest, Abrahams asked
the physicists if they had any advice for
young people entering the field. But the
tongue-in-cheek mood had infected Taylor.
Citing the fact that only one Stanford
undergraduate had ever gone on to win a
Nobel, he suggested with a perfectly
straight face that "if you want to win a
Nobel Prize, don't go to Stanford."

Perl told the audience to cultivate their
passion. "The art of obsession in
experimental science is [knowing] when to
work obsessively and when to give up," he
said.

During the rest of the seminar, Abrahams
maintained a poker face as he described
research - much of it genuine - that has
appeared in Annals of Improbable Research, a
magazine (started in 1994 by Abrahams and
Alex Kohn; born from the Journal of
Irreproducible Results, which was started in
1955 by Kohn and Harry Lipkin) that is
sometimes described as the MAD Magazine of
science. One study sought to determine
whether pigeons can be trained to
distinguish between paintings by Picasso and
Monet (they can) and another analyzed
whether bricks carry infectious diseases
(they don't).

Abrahams introduced guest speakers by
saying, "A whole bunch of people will talk
to you about a lot of different things,
which - if you're not lucky - will change
your lives."

Scott Sandford, a researcher at NASA Ames
Research Center, gave a short presentation
on spectroscopy. Displaying models of
molecules with wooden balls attached to each
other by metal springs, he explained that
infrared light makes bonds between atoms
jiggle. He then showed spectra of ammonia,
Nestea Instant Tea Mix and Desenex Foot
Powder, demonstrating that each spectrum had
a characteristic set of bands.

Sandford then presented his breakthrough:
These ordinary substances may make up the
interstellar clouds where new galaxies are
born. The spectra of Desenex and Nestea,
added to that of his kitchen sink, reproduce
the spectrum of the gas clouds. Finally, he
displayed the spectrum of a Granny Smith
apple and contrasted it with that of a navel
orange - work that he has published in the
Annals under the title "A Spectrographic
Comparison of Apples and Oranges."

Abrahams also presented a slide show on the
"Ig Nobel" prizes, which Annals of
Improbable Research presents annually for
"research that cannot or should not be
reproduced." Past Ig Nobels include:

   * Economics: "Inability to deal with the
     stress of financial problems increases
     risk of gum disease."

   * Peace: "The possible pain experienced
     during execution by different methods."

   * Biology: "Effects of ale, garlic and
     sour cream on the appetite of leeches."

This last prize went to Norwegian
researchers who regretted missing the Ig
Nobel prize ceremony. They sent in their
place the Norwegian consul, who gave a
gracious speech and then threw plastic
leeches into the audience. "We learned
something about leeches that day, and we
also learned something about diplomats,"
Abrahams recalled.

The levity of the evening demonstrated the
goal Abrahams and Annals of Improbable
Research have adopted: making fun of
science. But they mean no harm, Abrahams
explained. "We're intending to boost
science," he said. And scientists, in
return, enjoy the humor. One Ig Nobel prize
went to researchers who nominated
themselves. Actual Nobel laureates attend
the Ig Nobel awards and participate in the
ceremonies. Every issue of the Annals
includes an interview with a Nobelist, like
the one conducted on Wednesday evening.

"We think there are a lot of people who
would be excited about science if they
hadn't been frightened of it," Abrahams
said. The humorous side of science can get
people interested or even involved in
science by dispelling its daunting image.
"Part of our mission is to seduce people."
SR