THE IMPROPER BOSTONIAN
January 13, 1999
 

The Improbable Science of Marc Abrahams

By Ian Donnis

After delivering a basically unintelligible two-minute lecture in heavily accented Canadian English, Troy Hurtubise of Ontario is honored for creating a Robocop-like exo-skeleton of armor that is impervious to grizzly bears. The capacity crowd in Harvard's Sanders Theatre goes wild, flinging squadrons of paper airplanes at the stage and applauding the intrepid inventor's skillful mixing of titanium and duct tape.

Next up, Gettysburg College researcher Peter Fong is praised in absentia for his finding that clams reproduce at 10 times their normal rate if they are fed Prozac. Accepting the prize for Fong are Dr. Peter Kramer, the author of "Listening to Prozac," and a boisterous contingent from Woodman's, the venerable North Shore clamshack.

Some kind of MIT fraternity prank gone amok? Rehearsals for the Havard Lampoon? No, this is the scene at the Eighth First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, where amazing, inane and truly odd cases of genuine scientific inquiry are skewered and celebrated in a freewheeling spectacle where truth is always stranger than fiction. In keeping with tradition, some of the honorees even show up, such as Hurtubise, who expounded on his invention the next day at the Harvard Science Center before his newfound celebrity quickly led to an appearance on the Roseanne show.

The ringmaster of this peculiar pageant, Marc Abrahams is in his element throughout the ceremony. Clad in tuxedo, tails, custom-made duct tape bowtie and tattered black silk tophat, Abrahams casts a benign presence as four actual Nobel laureates portray the children of a struggling inventor in La Forza del Duct Tape, a mini-opera in three acts (Though loftier topics such as DNA and the Big Bang are usually chosen, duct tape is the theme of the 1998 Ig Nobels, and samples of sponsor Manco's Flat Pack Duck Tape are distributed at the eveningÕs end).

Tapping this unlikely combination of science and humor, Abrahams is building a growing international gang of readers/co-conspirators as editor-publisher of the bimonthly, Cambridge-based magazine, Annals of Improbable Research. The irreverent spirit of AIR ("The Journal of Record for Inflated Research and Personalities") culminates every October in the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, where a sold-out crowd of Ignataries, Harvard student societies, science aficionados and various eccentrics hoot and holler at the bizarre wonder of it all until the curtain comes down.

"My role is essentially to be Kermit the Frog," says Abrahams, 42, who graduated from Harvard with a degree in applied math and developed software before embarking on his current calling. "I'm surrounded by crazy people who are doing colorful things that will probably lead to disaster, and it's my job to help them do it, but to prevent the disaster. I'm bemused and mildly panicked for two hours."

While the Ig Nobel prizes are awarded exclusively for actual deeds, and AIR includes a dose of fictional content (such as scientist/supermodel SymmetraÕs advice column, Elegant solutions to complex problems), both plumb the blurry line between dubious and dynamic science. Take, for example, Hurtubise, who faced the business end of pickup trucks and baseball bats while refining and personally testing his anti-grizzly outfit. Or researcher Harald Moi, who paid his own way from Norway to Cambridge to collect a 1996 Ig Nobel for his cautionary medical report, "Transmission of Gonorrhea Through an Inflatable Doll." And then there's Robert A. Lopez, a veterinarian in Westport, N.Y., who used a writing style reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe in recounting experiments in which he obtained ear mites from cats, inserted them into his own ear and carefully observed and analyzed the results.

A desire to spread fun is the overwhelming raison d'etre that animates Abrahams, a Swampscott native who became intrigued with science as a kid through Tom Swift books and the excitement of the space program in the 1960s. But the Annals of Improbable Research is also meant "in a very unfamiliar way to seduce people into being curious about science," he says. "Almost everyone is curious about science until they're 11 or 12, -- before a bad teacher or other ill influence comes on the scene."

In the face of what he sees as anti- science vibe in the larger culture, Abrahams' steadfast belief is that "If you can get people curious enough, you can get them learning awfully fast on their own." Toward that end, AIR includes an eclectic melange of science (a study on "How Dead is a Doornail?" "One Project in the Life of an Astronomer, Described in Haiku"), pseudoscience ("The Taxonomy of Barney"), real-life curiosities (a cover shot featuring a Beavis-like obsolete embryo that has been housed at a Philadelphia medical museum since 1874), and an impertinent teacher's guide (in which students are encouraged to second-guess the work of scientists).

The fodder for each issue is a mix of factual research culled from 10,000 obscure journals and the feverish fictions of contributors.

"The one rule is it should be really interesting. It should pique your curiousity one way or another," Abrahams says during a recent interview at his base of operations, a third-floor apartment on a side street between Harvard and Porter square. "About one-third of what we publish is concocted, about a third is genuine, and the rest the readers canÕt really tell the difference. I think thatÕs roughly the same mix as youÕll find in any newspaper, not just the science section."

Since initially launching Annals of Improbable Research online in 1994, Abrahams has developed a publication with a reach and influence that far outstrips its print circulation of 2,000, 70 percent of which is in the United States. Twenty thousand AIRheads receive mini-Air via e-mail (www.improb.com) on a free, monthly basis. As the market leader of its distinctive turf, AIR has received attention from Nature, National Public Radio, The Boston Globe, Science, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the BBC, CNN, C-Span and many other media entities.

"The Best of the Annals of Improbable Research," which is envisioned by Abrahams as the first in a series of anthologies, was published early this year by W.H. Freeman and Co, and foreign publishers have signed up to print the book in Italy, Germany and Switzerland.

To those who would scold that science is not an appropriate subject for humor, Abrahams has a ready reply. As evidenced by the large and unremitting amount of AIR- and Ig Nobel-grade research, science is simply too human, too much fun and too important not to laugh at. "Science is not about memorizing stuffy words and useless facts," he says. "Science is about asking questions _ the "dumber" and simpler the better _ and impishly, persistently trying to get sensible answers."

In "The Best of Annals of Improbable Research," Abrahams recounts how an AIR editorial board member once approached the distinguished but ever-somber astronomer Carl Sagan and "suggested that Sagan join our little gang of mischief-makers. Sagan, as the story was passed to me, replied tartly that what we are doing is -- dangerous because it causes people to laugh at scientists.-- I think Sagan misunderstood us. What we're about is getting people to laugh with scientists as they laugh at this crazy universe and at themselves."

Sagan might have balked, but a number of other eminent scientists revealed themselves as well-practiced pranksters who were eager to become part of what Abrahams affectionately refers to as the gang. Consequently, AIR has an editorial board studded with Nobel laureates, pseudo-celebrities (Marilyn Vos Savant, billed as having the world's highest IQ; convicted felon Robert T. Morris, who was prosecuted when his well-intentioned attempt to demonstrate security flaws on the Internet unexpectedly spiraled out of control), and academic and industry specialists in fields ranging from astronomy to urology.

"Science is fun, as well as being serious," said editorial board member William N. Lipscomb of Cambridge, a 1976 Nobel laureate in chemistry from Harvard University. Taking part in AIR is "sort of an opportunity to say something about people that misuse science." What's more, Lipscomb relishes the chance to play his clarinet during the Ig Nobel prize ceremonies.

Working as editor/publisher of the Annals of Improbable Research is a veritable dream job for Abrahams, who foisted his curious brew of funny scientific writings on tolerant friends while moving through high school and college. After spending time in the software world and starting his own company, Wisdom Stimulators, he sought a wider outlet for his efforts.

Former Scientific American contributor Martin Gardner suggested that Abrahams try the Journal of Irreproducible Results, which was started as a kind of fake scientific journal in 1955 by Israeli virologist Alexander Kohn and physicist Harry Lipkin. Shortly after finding an address for the obscure publication and sending in some material around 1990, Abrahams received a call from the journal's then- publisher, asking if he would like to take on the editor's job. After finally seeing a copy of the journal a few days later, Abrahams decided to sign on. In 1991, he created the Ig Nobel prize to recognize "achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced." In addition to such valuables as a plastic bag, prize winners were awarded an Iggie -- a statuette depicting a classical thinker in a fetal position -- that is "made of durable materials that will last a good three or fours weeks if you keep it out of the sun," and "worth easily almost $3."

Not everyone's laughing, however. After a management shuffle at the Journal of Irreproducible Results, Abrahams detected a wavering commitment to the periodical's future, and he left in 1994 to launch the Annals of Improbable Research with Alexander Kohn's blessing. Meanwhile, George Scherr, the Chicago resident who served as the journal's publisher from 1964-89, regained control of the periodical and began targeting Abrahams. In 1997, Scherr sued Abrahams in U.S. District Court in Chicago, alleging conspiracy, racketeering, fraud and using pen names, among other charges.

For his part, Abrahams describes the allegations as "loopy" and takes umbrage at being called a racketeer by a guy from Chicago. Using his insouciant brand of media-savvy, he also assembled a Strategic AIR Defense Fund, co-chaired by Lipscomb and two other Nobel laureates. Although the lawsuit was thrown out by a judge, the case remains on appeal. "The guy who is suing me is 40 years older than me, so I think time is on my side," says Abrahams.

While he could probably make more money in his old line of developing software, Abrahams relishes his role as the guiding light for a sui generis hybrid of Mad magazine and Scientific American. "This is more enjoyable," he says. "This lets me combine many things I enjoy doing. I think it's doing a lot of good in a lot of ways, and I think it has a pretty good chance of being a successful business," with anticipated increases in circulation, growing use in schools and prospects for television and radio projects.

In the interim, the impish editor/publisher is prepared to mine fertile new territory as the Annals of Improbable Research expands its focus beyond the hard sciences. "More genuine crackpot stuff," Abrahams says with thinly veiled delight, can be found in the softer sciences of sociology and psychology. "If we're looking for funny stuff, it's not even like shooting fish in a barrel," he says. "It's like shooting dead fish in a barrel."
 

Frequent contributor Ian Donnis had a hard time with 9th grade biology.