Feedback
Science

Science + Humor = A Winning Formula for Laughing and Thinking

Image: Marc Abrahams with bra

During a TEDxCERN presentation, Ig Nobel impresario Marc Abrahams holds up what he says is the only bra he owns - an "emergency bra" that can be converted into a pair of gas masks. The inventor of the device, Elena Bodnar, is one of Abrahams' Ig Nobel laureates. TEDxCERN via YouTube

Who knew that including a dog in a newspaper story makes the story 2.2 times more interesting? Or that slime mold can compose music? Marc Abrahams knew, and the impresario of the improbable has turned such seemingly silly science into a global franchise.

There are the Ig Nobel Prizes, for instance, which honor "research that makes people laugh, and then think." There's a magazine called the Annals of Improbable Research, and a blog at Improbable.com. There are stage shows that take improbable research on the road to Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Japan and other locales. There's a series of books based on the Ig Nobels, including "The Ig Nobel Cookbook, Vol. 1." Soon there'll be a weekly podcast, too.

Is there any end to what silly science can do?

"We're just getting started," Abrahams said. "We're getting an amount of momentum that's fun to play with."

September's Ig Nobel ceremony will be the 25th annual celebration of laugh-provoking, thought-provoking research. The franchise has come a long way in all that time. Abrahams still recalls the early days, when newspaper columnists at a convention were puzzled to hear Abrahams say that he wrote about "science that's funny."

"They were treating me really like I was a lunatic," Abrahams said. "They were thinking, 'Science and funny together? That makes no sense.'"

Today, there are oodles of online outlets that find the sense in silly science — including, sometimes, the outlet you're plugged into right now.

Last month, we presented our own Weird Science Awards, topped off by the reports of giant black holes opening up in Siberia's permafrost. Now we can declare that another weird project, in which Finnish herders slapped glow-in-the-dark paint on reindeers' antlers as a traffic safety measure, has won the People's Choice Award in the 2015 Weirdies.

Does Abrahams feel threatened by all the other outlets for silly science? Not at all.

"I don't really feel I have any competitors," he said. "Everybody's doing it in a way that doesn't collide with what I'm doing."

He explained that most reports about science, even the silly ones, focus on telling a story that ends with a neat and tidy answer. "What I'm trying to do is tell the story in a way such that the question is more intriguing than it was five minutes earlier," Abrahams said.

Abrahams' upcoming podcasts should give him a chance to delve more deeply into those questions.

"One of my greatest and happiest problems is that I've got far more material than I can use," he said, "stuff that nobody knows about but me."

Marc Abrahams will review the past year's weirdest scientific tales with NBC News' Alan Boyle during Wednesday's installment of "Virtually Speaking Science," an hourlong talk show airing at 8 p.m. ET via BlogTalkRadio. You can also watch the show as part of a live virtual audience in the Exploratorium's Second Life auditorium. If you miss the live show, never fear: You can always catch up with the podcast in BlogTalkRadio's archive or on iTunes. November's show featured SETI Institute senior astronomer Seth Shostak talking about the movie "Interstellar" and the search for habitable worlds.