His bank manager might not see the similarities, but in many ways, Marc Abrahams' life has mirrored that of Bill Gates. Both studied mathematics at Harvard University in the mid-1970s and both went into software to start their own companies. Nearly 30 years later, Gates is the multibillionaire chairman of software giant Microsoft, while Abrahams is through accident the editor of a magazine that makes a small profit but has taken over his life.
This evening, Abrahams kicks off the first UK Ig Nobel Prize tour in London as a highlight of the British Association's National Science Week. He created the Ig Nobels 11 years ago to reward "research that cannot or should not be reproduced". Past winners include Troy Hurtubise of North Bay, Ontario, awarded the safety engineering prize for developing, and personally testing, a suit of armour that is impervious to grizzly bears, and Surrey University's Harold Hillman, who won the peace prize for his lovingly rendered report The Possible Pain Experienced During Execution by Different Methods .
Abrahams became fascinated by weird and wonderful research as a child. In 1990, he became editor of The Journal of Irreproducible Results . When the publisher abandoned it in 1994, all the staff resigned and founded the Annals of Improbable Research , dedicated to "genuine, and genuinely funny, research culled from more than 10,000 sombre science, medical, and other speciality journals". It is run full time by Abrahams, with part-time help and many zealous volunteers around the world.
But there is a serious side to the endeavour. The idea is to make people laugh, and then make them think about the science.
The popularity of AIR and the Ig Nobels has spread. Only a handful of winners have turned down the prize and David King, the UK government's chief scientific adviser, will take part in the first night of the Ig Nobels tour. But then the UK has produced a disproportionate number of winners.