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Unboiling an Egg, Farting Fish and Necrophilia Among Mallards: Meet SLAS2018 Keynoter Marc Abrahams

For the past 27 years, Marc Abrahams has been presenting the First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Awards ceremony to an audience of more than 1,000 science enthusiasts on the campus of Harvard University. In between these annual “First Annual” events, Abrahams is the editor of the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) magazine, shining a spotlight on what may seem improbable, irreverent or absurdly surprising science.

Striking the funny bone in scientific research gains attention for scientific breakthrough, and it's Marc Abrahams' job to make certain everyone gets the punchline. “We tell just enough of the story in one sentence so that anybody, no matter what their background, will have a clear picture,” says Abrahams.

During his keynote presentation at SLAS2018, to be held Feb. 3-7, 2018 in San Diego, Abrahams will share the tales of improbable projects that have won Ig Noble Prize Awards from the invention of a brassiere that, in an emergency, can be quickly converted into a pair of protective face masks, or the wasabi alarm, developed when researchers determined the ideal density of airborne wasabi (pungent horseradish) to awaken sleeping people in case of a fire or other emergency.

He uses a slide presentation to relate these narratives because “I discovered that if I just describe these stories, people think I'm telling jokes. Even if all I show is an image of the study’s first page, people realize that this is real,” says Abrahams.

“If we’ve done a good job summarizing this research, it’s so intriguing that you will stop, read it and tell your friends about it,” he continues. Take, for example, a Swedish marine biology team’s discovery that herring communicate by farting. This sentence quickly captures the essence of the study and employs Abrahams' patent rubric for his work: things that make people laugh – and think. What’s really surprising is what led the researchers to investigate the phenomenon in the first place.

It all started in the years after the Soviet Union collapsed, when the Swedish Prime Minister at the time, Carl Bildt, became convinced that Russian submarines were slipping into Swedish waters on spy missions. Bildt contacted two of the nation’s leading marine biologists, Magnus Whalberg, Ph.D., of the University of Aarhus (Denmark), and Hakan Westerberg, Ph.D., of Sweden's National Board of Fisheries, to identify a rhythmic tapping recorded by the Swedish navy in the waters off the country’s coast.

“The navy presented the knocking noise tapes to the scientists to get their blessing on what Bildt thought was apparent,” says Abrahams. The scientists came back to Bildt with a quick, qualified answer. They were hearing herring, and the noise was fish farts.

The researchers explained that herring may be communicating with each other by expelling water from their swim bladders, which makes a distinct knocking noise – the sound picked up by the Swedish navy’s recording devices. The prime minister’s response to this was, “You’re wrong. It’s submarines,” and he made plans to announce it publicly.

“To me, this is one of the great moments in science,” Abrahams continues. “One in which scientists are heroes in the best sense. Their response to the Prime Minister was, if you announce to the public that these are submarines, we’re going to simply, publicly show our data and explain that this is not submarines, it's fish farts.” The prime minister did not make an announcement, the project was shut down and international peace, such as it was, continued.

In the end, the biologists published a paper that was just about herring. “You had no idea, reading this paper, that it had any connection to submarines, spies or anything like that,” says Abrahams. “The only tiny hint was at the end where they added a few words thanking the Swedish navy for providing equipment.”

The paper was published the same year as a report by a Canadian-Scottish team published a study about its own, independent discovery of the herring-fart-communication phenomenon, and the two teams shared a 2004 Ig Nobel Prize Award in Biology. Some years after the prize ceremony, the Swedish investigators finally received permission to talk about the story behind their research.

“When a paper gets published in a science journal, it captures a particular moment in history. Readers may see it as ‘now everything is solved or everything is going to be different,’ but to me it never seems that way,” Abrahams says. “The story began a long time ago, and this is just one interesting moment. I look at everything we do in the magazine and with the Igs not so much as individual stories but as little bits of long, glorious soap operas.”

The Igs

To celebrate these glorious soap operas, nothing seems more appropriate than the Ig Nobel Prize Award ceremony. Webcast on 20 major news and science sites, the Igs honor not only 10 new Ig Nobel Prize Award winners each year for their improbable achievements, but also the research process in general. Intended to roughly reflect the prestigious Nobel Prize Awards with categories such as physics, chemistry and medicine, comparisons to the other prize ceremony end there. The Igs reflect 27 years of wacky traditions and continual efforts to one-up the year before with crazy costumes, funny props, audience participation and side gags. The Ig Nobel Prize Award ceremony is not unlike an evening at The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The revelry begins with perennial Ig favorites, such as the audience tossing paper airplanes at the stage to launch the ceremony, a three-act opera that embodies the annual theme of the event and figures such as the human spotlights. Modeled after Rodin's The Thinker, the mascot of all Improbable Research, these spotlights parade about the stage in silver body paint and carry flashlights to shine on the participants. The evening also is directed by chorus of referees, monitors and an entity known as Miss Sweetie Poo, a pint-sized prompter who lets speakers know when it’s time to end their acceptance speeches.

“This cute, eight-year-old girl must be someone who has ice-water in her blood,” explains Abrahams, who acts as master of ceremonies. “She marches out and announces, ‘Please stop, I’m bored’ repeatedly until the speaker leaves the podium. No sane adult can withstand her.”

Ultimately what sets the Igs apart is the researchers’ willingness to celebrate the funny side of science. Actual Nobel laureates and other distinguished scientists participate every year by handing out prizes, conducting scientific exhibitions on stage and giving 24-second lectures on current published papers. During the 2016 Ig ceremony, for example, renowned biologist Patricia Brennan, Ph.D., brought down the house with a PG-14-rated technical description and not-so-PG-14 seven-word summary of the morphological evolution of duck genitals ("deviant duck dicks foiled by fabulous vaginas").

Meanwhile, the good-humored honorees get into the spirit of the ceremony. The 2017 awards featured an Ig Nobel Prize Award for Peace presented to a pajama-ed team of Swiss scientists whose award-winning study revealed that didgeridoo playing is an alternative treatment for obstructive sleep apnea and snoring. The 2017 awards also highlighted the work of Paris Diderot University physicist Marc-Antoine Fardin, who took home the Ig Nobel Prize Award in Physics for using fluid dynamics to probe the question, "Can a Cat be Both a Solid and a Liquid?”

Over the years the ceremonies have honored research that explores everything from why woodpeckers don't get headaches and why spaghetti doesn't break in half to how to reduce kitchen refuse by using bacteria extracted from giant panda feces and revelations that chimpanzees can identify each other individually in photos of their rear ends, or the discovery that acute appendicitis can be accurately diagnosed by the pain level evident when the patient is driven over speed bumps.

Other celebrated works include the research of teams that won the 2015 Ig Nobel Prize Award in Chemistry for inventing a process that partially unboils egg whites. The proud winners, who hailed from the University of California, Irvine (UC Irvine), The University of Western Australia in Perth, Western Australia, and Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia, achieved this feat when Flinders’ professor Colin Raston, Ph.D., created a vortex fluid device that unprocesses proteins. The amazing breakthrough uses less energy, generates less waste and functions in a fraction of the time of conventional methods. Raston conceived the whole thing on a 15-hour flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia, and fine tuned the design after a chance, 10-minute conversation with a colleague from UC Irvine two years later.

When Raston’s invention is not un-cooking breakfast by using mechanical energy (spinning) to undo the work of thermal energy (cooking), it has the potential to reduce the costs for cancer treatments and could give doctors in remote areas the ability to create anesthetics in an instrument no larger than a coffee cup.

Such stories reveal multiple layers of narrative, observes Abrahams. “Often the reason researchers start investigating something is a better part of the story than what's made explicit when they publish,” he says. “The final research is a combination of what they notice, what happens along the way and sometimes also the result of bumping into a collaborator.” With a network of enthusiastic scientists around the world continually sending him new material, Abrahams report stories that most might miss, even in this age of rapid, non-stop communication.

A Breath of Fresh AIR

Getting science to pause for a moment of humor has not always been easy. To be funny or not became the dilemma of Abrahams’ daily job when he became editor of a publication called the Journal of Irreproducible Results in 1990. The journal, which had been around since 1955, was started by a couple of scientists who had a similar sense of humor and wanted a vehicle to catalog the interesting bits of research they uncovered. The journal waxed and waned over the decades as different groups controlled it and as opinions changed about presenting humorous science research.

"I got warned by every scientist involved with us that I would have to deal with this understandable worry. Over time it has gotten better, but it’s something that is still out there every once in a while," says Abrahams, pointing to the work of Senator William Proxmire (D-Wisconsin) and his Golden Fleece Awards. "Although the Fleece was done with good intentions to get people to pay attention to wasteful government spending, it was done sloppily. They either ruined or came close to ruining the careers of many scientists simply because they didn’t check anything. It made scientists wary.”

A year after Abrahams joined the journal, he launched the Ig Nobel Prize Award ceremony in 1991. In spite of the growing popularity of both the journal and the ceremony, the magazine's publisher decided to abandon the cause four years later. One thing led to another, and Abrahams and the entire editorial staff abandoned the publisher and immediately created AIR.

"Everything that I am doing now as work, was something I loved doing when I was a little kid," says Abrahams. Through his connections with the scientific community, Abrahams established the Improbable Research Editorial Board with more than 50 distinguished scientists, Nobel Laureates, several Ig Nobel Prize Award winners, IQ record holder Marilyn Vos Savant and convicted felon Robert Morris.

Issues typically have a single overall topic, such as January 2017 that focused on sneezing, coughing and nose-blowing, with features on the medical dangers of sneezing and a study on coughing in formal and social settings, or the September-October 2015 issue, which highlighted clever inventions. Who wouldn't want more information on inventions to match up socks or a self-defense wig?

Celebrating Scientific Triumph, Large and Small

It’s no wonder that this tradition of creativity and humor can’t be contained in one event. The science humor found in AIR and the Ig Nobel Prize Award ceremony evolved into a newsletter (mini-AIR), newspaper columns, books, podcasts, Improbable TV and clubs such as the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists. Soon after the birth of the Igs, the laureates decided to take the show on the road, touring both the U.S., Europe and elsewhere, lecturing about how science and technology research advances knowledge in many fields, no matter how seemingly odd the subject matter might be.

“I spend almost all of March in Europe with a lot of past Ig Nobel Prize Award winners, and we do public events where they talk about their research and do demonstrations,” says Abrahams, who delights in his public lectures.

What most excites him about the SLAS2018 presentation is the roomful of life sciences discovery and technology professionals, “who all have their own good stories buried away," he says, adding that he hopes people will come to him with these stories. “One thing that I saw early on in doing this work is that everybody knows a lot of good stories. It’s difficult for people to pry those out of their memory because — to them — those what-happened-at-work stories seem just ordinary."

Such as the scientific paper written by Kees Moeliker, Ph.D., director of the Natural History Museum Rotterdam, Rotterdam, Netherlands. It was an everyday occurrence at the museum for birds to fly into the plate glass windows of the building. To salvage this tragedy, when Moeliker or another ornithologist heard the tell-tale loud “thunk” on the glass, they would hurry to gather up the bird for taxidermy to add to the collection.

One day, Moeliker observed something quite unusual. It was so strange that took him six years to decide to publish his findings, as he wasn’t sure how his observations would be received. His research not only secured a 2003 Ig Nobel Prize Award in Biology, but also launched a whole new side career. What he saw was a live male mallard copulating with a dead male mallard that had flown into the glass.

“Moeliker’s paper is the first scientifically reported case of homosexual necrophilia in the Mallard duck,” says Abrahams. “It’s one of the most wonderfully written pieces of literature, as well as one of the best written scientific reports on one of the funniest topics I have ever seen.” The duck, the observations and Ig Nobel Prize Award that Moeliker received gave him a parallel profession as a writer and a TV commentator about science, which, in turn, has helped his museum and his research to thrive.

“There’s so much stuff out there,” Abrahams concludes. “I am quite convinced that I will hear similar great stories from a bunch of individuals in that room in San Diego.”

October 23, 2017