Notably Ig Nobel: Science humor

Author and newspaper columnist Marc Abrahams is the editor of the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research. At TEDMED 2014 he shared laughter- and thought-provoking stories behind some of the winners of the Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony, which he founded and hosts. Almost all humor aside, Marc snuck away from his duties for a few moments to answer questions for us.

Marc Abrahams at TEDMED 2014: Science Humor

Marc Abrahams at TEDMED 2014. Photo: Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED

Why does this talk matter now? What impact do you hope the talk will have?

People are sometimes given very serious advice about their health by Very Important People who know little and assume much. Look at the crazy advice that some politicians and some journalists are giving us — “Don’t vaccinate your kids!”, “Ebola was created by evil people who want to attack the American public!”. If someone — no matter who it is — tells you something that seems absurd, the best thing you can do is laugh, if it strikes you as funny… and then go find out the facts, and think about them. And THEN decide what you think about their advice.

What kind of meaningful or surprising connections did you make at TEDMED?

Three people each told me about scarily good candidates for future Ig Nobel Prizes. I probably would never have heard of any of those nominees if I hadn’t gone to TEDMED. (Sorry — I am not permitted to tell you anything about those nominees. We have rules, y’know.)

What is the legacy you want to leave?

I hope I helped at least a few people decide that it’s okay to make their own decisions — rather than simply accept what some authoritative person told them — about what’s good and what’s bad, and what’s important and what’s not.  

Anything else you wish you could have included in your talk?

Well, of course I wanted to tell the story of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck. But there wasn’t time. And anyway, Kees Moeliker, the scientist who made that discovery, is the best person to tell that story, which he did in an obscure biology journal, and then at the 2003 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, and then again years later in a TED talk.

Can you share some highlights from the 2014 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony?

The on-stage demonstration of the technique that won this year’s Ig Nobel Prize for medicine. It was awarded to a team from the U.S. and India for treating “uncontrollable” nosebleeds using the method of nasal packing with strips of cured pork. Before that night, I had never in my life met anyone who had disguised himself as a polar bear to frighten a reindeer. I am very pleased with the premiere performance — as part of the ceremony  — of “What’s Eating You”, the mini-opera about a couple who decided to stop eating regular food, and instead get all their nutrients from pills. The lead singers were magnificent, and so was the chorus of their intestinal microbes.

What was your favorite winner from the 2014 Ig Nobel prize ceremony?

I am entranced by the Nutrition Prize winners — Raquel Rubio, Anna Jofré, Belén Martín, Teresa Aymerich, and Margarita Garriga, who published a study titled “Characterization of Lactic Acid Bacteria Isolated from Infant Faeces as Potential Probiotic Starter Cultures for Fermented Sausages.” They could not travel to the ceremony, so instead sent us a mesmerizing half-minute-long video in which they explain what they did and why, and then eat some of the sausage. MA2