Abrahams, of Cambridge, is founder of the annual Ig Nobel awards, a takeoff on the Nobel Prizes that honor research that “first makes you laugh and then makes you think.” His new book, “This is Improbable,” summarizes some of the research he has come across, and is being published this month.
Q. You’ve been talking about “improbable research” for more than two decades. What made you want to write a book now?
A. These are based on a lot of the columns I’ve written in the Guardian newspaper over the last nine to 10 years. They all have a deeper quality, which I’ve put into words only since I wrote this book. It’s really about the thing that makes these funny in the first place: They all have something unexpected.
Q. What is it that appeals to you about such stories?
A. A big part of how I choose what to dig into is that there is more to them than you have any way of seeing at first glance. Whatever you think the story is, you’re not entirely wrong, but you’re missing most of it.
Q. Have you ever learned anything about your own health or body from these studies?
A. There’s one [story in the book] about the history of dentistry in France, which certainly has made me think a lot more deeply every time I go to the dentist for a checkup. It tells how, in early days, anybody could get whatever equipment they thought was proper and persuade people to let them go to work [on their teeth]. Some of them were very skilled and some of them really weren’t.
Q. Any interesting questions raised by the research you write about?
A. A young Belgian man wanted [plastic surgeons] to do whatever it took so that his face would end up looking like Michael Jackson’s at the height of his fame. That got me wondering: What is that guy’s life going to be like in the coming decades, now that Michael Jackson’s not around and this guy’s getting older? It made me think harder about the question, when someone really wants surgery to modify their appearance, what are they really asking for and how are they going to react if they get exactly what they think they want?
Q. Do you ever worry that showing what’s ridiculous about science also trivializes it?
A. There were people who used to study that disgusting stuff that shows up on a slice of bread if you leave it out for a few days — and that’s where penicillin came from. It doesn’t seem very funny anymore, but at the start, when people first heard about where [penicillin] came from, “ridiculous” is about the chief thing that would pop up in people’s minds. That’s true with just about anything that’s new.
Q. Have any of the funny studies you’ve written about turned out to be important to science?
A. A very few of them, at least some day will turn out to be very useful to the point that everyone would be baffled at the idea that these things seemed funny once.
Q. What can we learn from people like the man you wrote about who spent decades following the growth of his fingernails?
A. He spent 35 years carefully measuring and charting [their growth] methodically and consistently. Nobody’d ever done that. The idea that somebody would do that — it’s not exactly an insane thing to do. And yet, it’s become the only record that exists of a simple part of our physical being that is relentlessly continuing to operate in every one of us every single day.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Karen Weintraub can be reached at Karen@KarenWeintraub.com.