AAAS report #4: Science is a funny business

Contributed by
Feb 18, 2006

I'm sitting in the hotel bar with a half dozen science humorists. This is the life!

I remember reading Joel Achenbach's "Why Things Are" column for years, and it was hysterical. He's sitting next to me now, talking about the Washington Post, reporters, and the decline of the web (I may have that somewhat mixed up).

One person listening to him is Marc Abrahams, who runs the Annals of Improbable Research. Marc presented a two hour tour-de-force a little while back about the world famous "Ig Nobel awards, given to people who have done dubious (and generally unintentionally hilarious) scientific research. He showed pictures from people who have won awards for

  • creating a big foam suit to act like armor, and then letting a log swing from a rope and smack into him, hard (think end of the movie Predator),
  • inventing Karaoke,
  • writing a scientific paper about whether cats prefer men with beards (it turns out -- shocker-- cats are indifferent to facial hair),
  • creating a periodic table table-- literally, a conference table set up like the periodic table of elements. It even has sample of each element (well, almost each element in it) under the tile of the element in question.

This talk was brilliant, and he even had some past winners there to present their work. Go read the webpage for the Ig Nobels: it's killer stuff. Science is funny.

Anyway, at this bar was also a woman by the name of Elizabeth Kolbert who just won an award from the AAAS for a series of articles she wrote on global warming. Also here was another freelance journalist by (coincidentally) the name of Joel, whose last name I missed, and Lara Ricci, an Italian journalist who writes science humor in Italy.

This was a fascinating evening, full of fun and also some serious discussion on the future of newspapers, the attacks on science (a huge topic at this meeting!)... but mostly a lot of big laughs (Joel Achenbach's writing is very funny; he used to hang out with Dave Barry if that means anything to you) .

I've observed over the years, and it's been confirmed by countless other scientists, that the real business of meetings is conducted at restaurants and bars. The symposia, the posters, the plenary lectures-- those are interesting, and they can spark conversations, but those conversations thrive and bloom over drinks and calamari. Maybe I can figure out some way of getting it included in my per diem...

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