In 2008, a team of Japanese researchers developed a way to extract vanilla flavoring from cow dung. In 2003, scientists at the Cornell Food Lab investigated the limits of human appetites, by feeding people with self-refilling, bottomless bowls of soup. And in 2010, investigators from the Zoological Society of London perfected a method for collecting whale snot using remote control helicopters.
It may not always seem like it, but science is actually loaded with weird and alluring studies such as these. It's Marc Abrahams' job to find them.
For over two decades, Abrahams has split his time between editing the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research and organizing the the Ig Nobel Prizes, an annual awards ceremony that recognizes those scientific achievements which "first make people laugh, and then make them think." (In the image up top, Abrahams can be seen in a top hat MC-ing the event).
If you're unfamiliar with the Ig Nobels, check out our coverage of 2011's proceedings. If you're looking for a one-sentence description... there really isn't one that can do it justice; just understand that it's the only ceremony on Earth where you can listen to real Nobel laureates partake in an operatic ode to coffee's effects on the human sphincter. To quote Amanda Palmer, the Igs are "like the weirdest f-ing thing that you'll ever go to... it's a collection of, like, actual Nobel Prize winners giving away prizes to real scientists for doing f'd-up things... it's awesome."
We recently spent some time talking with Abrahams about what inspired him to pursue science, and what drives him and his colleagues at the Annals of Improbable Research to curate scientific research that's not only interesting, but ridiculously entertaining.
We know you got your degree in applied maths from Harvard. You also spent time working at Kurzweil Computer Products, and even started your own software company. You've clearly been interested in science and technology for some time; what would you say first piqued that interest?
Marc Abrahams: Oh, I could name a whole bunch of things. When I was a little kid the American space program was first getting off the ground, and when you're a child and that's going on and everyone is making a big deal about it, it's easy to get excited about. My father had some background in science, as did a number of my relatives, but a lot of it was just what was going on around me.
Another major influence came in the form of Tom Swift books [a series of American science fiction/adventure novels], and those did their part, too. They were very much the equivalent of the Hardy Boys or the Nancy Drew mysteries — long series of books (all of which, it turns out, were written by the same book-packaging firm), but the Tom Swift novels were some of the first. They were about a boy inventor named Tom Swift, and each one was an adventure. Each novel would be about the newest stuff that people were just inventing or discovering, so books in the very first series [published at the beginning of the 20th Century] were about Tom Swift and His Motorcycle, Tom Swift and his Submarine Boat, Tom Swift and his Air Glider, things like that.
When I was a kid there was a second series, written in the '50s and '60s, that was more about things like space flight or electronics, machines that would bore into the ground, and so on, and it was a really great introduction — a great way to get excited about all this kind of stuff that was going on.
So those are a few examples of what sparked my interest in science, but mostly — and I think this is the case for a lot of people — that's just the kind of stuff I liked, and people encouraged me. When you get down to it, that's just kind of the way things always were for me.
The atmosphere surrounding NASA and space exploration is less prominent today than it was when you were a child. Where do you think kids today who are interested in science and technology will find their inspiration?
Marc Abrahams: Now more than ever, I think the question of finding inspiration in the things around you comes down to whether that person is wired that way, because — especially now — there is just so much stuff; we're almost breathing technology, and so much of it is exciting and new.
Something that's really started to flower in the last ten years or so is this atmosphere that everything you use is better than the last model; there was a version that you used prior to the one you're using now, and you know there's going to be a better version coming really soon. And somebody is making those things. Those things aren't just growing out of the ground. It's not that it rains and there's a new iPhone or a new Kinect or a new whatever, you know?
There's a lot of publicity surrounding the people and the companies that are creating these things; word spreads quickly, and it does so in different ways, be it via Twitter, email, or a website. And this news isn't just about what the new thing is; the exciting thing is how lots of people, including kids next door to you, are figuring out entirely new ways to use this brand new thing that came out yesterday or this morning. Maybe it hasn't even come out yet, but it doesn't matter — they know it's coming, and they may not know all the details, but they're already thinking about how to make it better, or a new way to use it.
Everybody is soaking in this stuff all day. I think if you're built a certain way, now is a great time to get easily interested in just about everything. But if you're not built that way, nobody's ever going to drag you to it.
Shifting now toward your work with the Annals of Improbable Research and the Ig Nobels — was there a moment when you first realized that science could be talked about in ways that highlight both its humor as well as its significance, or is that something that you've always recognized on some level?
Marc Abrahams: That's just how it's always been for me, the kind of science and research I've always looked for. I read a ton of stuff when I was small, poking through libraries and finding things [ranging from] Isaac Asimov to Popular Science. It's everywhere, in everything. You just have to look for it. [It's about] looking for answers and playing with them, and that's always been the best way to explain things to myself or to anybody else.
Whenever there was something I didn't quite understand, and I finally ran across some explanation (be it for a scientific concept or some piece of technology), a lot of the time the thing that finally made sense of it was written by somebody who was talking about it in a kind of odd-ball, but approachable, way. So suddenly, it would be like "Oh! So that's how that works!" you know? It wasn't some horribly complicated thing that I'd never be able to understand, it was just this really clear, simple idea that nobody ever phrased in the right way. Others had tried, but they'd used all these big, complicated ways of running around in circles. Looking back, I don't know why they felt they had to describe it that way, because you just turn the page and somebody's got this beautiful, funny little paragraph that makes the whole thing clear.
And to me, that's really an awful lot of what I'm doing and what everybody involved in [The Annals of Improbable Research and the Ig Nobels] is doing. We're not trying to present you with something that is so complicated, something that you're going to have to spend the rest of your life figuring out how to fit it in your head — we're just trying to make sense of what you see in front of you. That's all we're doing, but we're doing it in a way that we hope is funny.
This is how we come to understand things; it's clearer and easier if you have a slightly different way of looking at the world that really makes all the pieces fit together.
What Was It is a series of short interviews co-hosted on io9 and Gizmodo that asks the luminaries of science and science fiction what inspired them to delve so deeply into the only kind of magic we have in the real world - science and technology. What was it that first opened their eyes? Find out more at What Was It?