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The IgNobel Awards Tour a Memorable Evening

Aug 14 2009 12:32
Rhys Morgan
We interview Marc Abrahams; editor and co-founder of the Annals of Improbable Research, founder and emcee of the Ig Nobel Prizes.
Marc Abrahams

Rhys Morgan (RM) - Ig Nobel has the tagline of being for achievements that 'first make people laugh, and then make them think'. Over the last 18 years, which are the awards that have made you laugh the most and the ones you have found most thought provoking?

Marc Abrahams (MA) - They usually go hand-in-hand: implied in this is there is a certain quality of surprise that comes out with a lot of these prizes. The other is it just whacks you on the head and you have to react to it somehow, the nature of it forces you to react. One at random, the first recorded case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard duck. Another is the founder of the Association for Dead People, who is no longer dead. It took him about 15 or 20 years of fighting to get his life back.

The audience

RM - The Ig Nobel Prize Show is approaching its 20th Anniversary, currently 18 years old. What have some of the highlights been since it started in 1991?

MA ? The operas have always been a great source of pleasure, putting them together, seeming them preformed and seeing the audience's response. There have been a few unexpected responses to prize winners that have really stood out. One was a peace prize and one was an economics prize and these are things that I can't quite get out of my head. We gave the peace prize to the man who invented karaoke, Diasuke Inoue. The full citation was for inventing karaoke and thereby providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other. All I could get out was "the prize goes to Diasuke Inoue for inventing karaoke" and everybody in the place, all 1200 people, were on their feet screaming and jumping up and down and laughing. It felt like they were not going to stop and it was a strange and wonderful thing: these were 1200 people who had never heard of this man, didn't recognise him so that's not why they were excited, yet all of them had the same reaction that they couldn't even stay in their seat. What does that mean, what does that say about all of us?

Girl doing a handstand

RM ? Looking forward, what are your plans for the development of the IgNobel Awards?

MA ? We want to keep it very much the way it is now. I hope we can keep working to come up with a list of winners every year that is fully as surprising as all the past winners were, and I'm hoping it will get better now. We've started doing a series of little three-minute-long television episodes: they are up on the web you can see them on our website. I'm hoping we can hook up with a television network at some point and do a more elaborate version. We blatantly stole the format from Monty Python.

The IgNobel Awards has now become a regular thing, we've been doing a tour of the UK for Science Week for seven years now and Imperial College has become the home of our biggest show. From the first time we did it at Imperial, it felt that people there understand what this is about and it is a good nurturing place for it.

We gave the peace prize to the man who invented karaoke, Diasuke Inoue. The full citation was for inventing karaoke and thereby providing an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other. All I could get out was "the prize goes to Diasuke Inoue for inventing karaoke" and everybody in the place, all 1200 people, were on their feet screaming and jumping up and down and laughing.
Marc Abrahams

RM ? You write a column in the Guardian. in 2005 the Newspaper asked 250 scientists 'What is the one thing everyone should learn about science?' ? What do you think that one thing should be?

MA ? Science is something that almost every little kid does everyday: trying to make sense of what is around them. Science is the trying to make sense of something. What it's not is trying to stuff your head full of facts and the truth and the complete story of things.

The stage

RM ? What was the standout economics award that you mentioned?

MA ? That was in 2004; we gave the prize to executives, corporate directors and auditors of Enron, WorldCom and about 25 other companies for adapting the mathematical concept of imaginary numbers for use in the business world. As I was reading it, there was a low deep sound that was coming from the audience. You could see smiles on their faces, but it wasn't something that was happy; it was deep dissatisfaction and anger combined and then they cheered wildly for a long time afterwards. I remember being on stage and thinking if I were a professional politician, I would want to know this is how the public is reacting, this is valuable information.

The stage

RM -In 1996, the social sciences journal Social Text was awarded the Prize for Literature following the publication of a controversial "hoak postmodern article" by physicist Alan Sokal. What is your view of the Sokal Affair?

MA ? I thought it was pretty funny. It's always funny when people insist on something being real when they don't even both to look at what it is.

RM ? There was debate about whether it was appropriate for Sokal to deliberately mislead an academic journal, as well as whether Social Text took appropriate precautions in publishing the paper. What did you make of that?

IgNobel Prize Winner

MA ? The paper makes no sense what so ever. If you're not familiar with any branch of science it doesn't make any sense because it is lots and lots of big words and the sentences don't seem to flow. That's if you don't understand the words; if you do understand the words, it's even more so. It's hard to imagine a circumstance where it makes any sense at all, so why somebody would want to publish that is one question. It got stranger still after they published it. The editors of the journal came out and insisted that the joke was really on the guy who wrote it, because he had ended up writing something of great importance. I've been thinking about that ever since. It's been many years now and I still find it just stunning and, in its unusual way, beautiful.

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