September 13th marked the 28th annual Ig Nobel Prizes, a ceremony that honors scientists for research into such delightfully unexpected questions as, “Can a cat be both a liquid and a solid?” and “Why do old men have big ears?” The prizes are awarded for “achievements that first make people laugh, then make them think.”
Two days before the ceremony, the man behind this winsome tradition, Marc Abrahams, kicked off the Knight Science Journalism Program’s fall seminar series with a peek behind the scenes of the Ig Nobels and at the tricky business of injecting humor into science stories.
Speaking to KSJ fellows and guests from the MIT community, Abrahams said a steady stream of submissions for the awards flows into his inbox every day, so there’s never a dearth of material to consider. The real challenge, he said, is in the selection process. The committee strives to choose work that will make almost anyone, anywhere laugh. But humor doesn’t always translate across cultural or language barriers.
Abrahams said there’s no special formula for a winning study, except that the research has to be surprising on first encounter. As an example, he noted that one year an award was granted to a paper titled “Courtship Behavior of Ostriches Toward Humans Under Farming Conditions in Britain.”
“‘Towards humans’ are the two words in that title that make it hilarious,” said KSJ fellow Jason Dearen.
“Isn’t that beautiful?” Abrahams replied.
Abrahams runs a bimonthly magazine called Annals of Improbable Research, and he says he’s always on the lookout for weird and wacky science to consider for the Ig Nobels. He estimates that 10 to 20 percent of prize submissions come from scientists nominating their own research, but those almost never win. There are rare exceptions, such as Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal, who won after nominating his discovery that chimpanzees can recognize other chimpanzees based on photos of their rear ends.
More often, the scientists who win are not even aware that their work might be considered funny until Abrahams calls them to offer them the prize.
Abrahams says that, although the Ig Nobels are beloved in the scientific community, humor has not always been welcome in science news coverage. He recalls that in his first few years of doing this type of work, he received angry lectures about how wrong it was to combine the two. Especially in the U.S., he says, editors have long insisted that science be treated earnestly.
Some fellows observed that those attitudes may be shifting, with humor becoming a bigger part of science journalism. “There’s been a change in tone. There’s been a rise of the millennial, snarky science writer,” said KSJ fellow Rachel Gross, who added that her publication Smithsonian.com regularly covers Ig Nobel prizewinning research.
At the Ig Nobel ceremony, the humor does not stop with the awards. “We try to make the whole night full of surprises,” Abrahams said. Each year he writes an original comedic opera, to be performed throughout the ceremony by local scientists. He invites real Nobel laureates to assist in the proceedings, often tasking them with testing out some of the quirkiest experiments on stage. When the winners are announced, they are given exactly one minute to describe their research before a young woman walks over to cut them off with the magic words, “Please stop, I’m bored.”
Ig Nobel prizewinning research always has some unique, inherently funny element to it. But Abrahams said it’s not uncommon to find humor in science, if you dig deep enough. “An awful lot of papers have one little thing or ten little things in the middle of it that you skip over,” he says. “There are a whole lot of interesting unasked questions that are kind of goofy and kind of crazy.”