Interview with BAHFest Winner Prof. Jim Propp

Q. Was winning at BAHFest the fulfillment of a lifelong dream?

A. BAHFest gave me a unique opportunity to combine my love of science with my love of acting. But I can't say I ever dreamed of doing something like this.

Q. How did you come up with the idea of dinosaurs falling up and then down?

A. I had this idea over twenty years ago. When I learned that Earth's magnetic field undergoes periodic reversals, I came up with a whimsical variant where Earth's gravitational field reverses. Of course, that's nonsense, but, being a pure mathematician, I like to mull over things that seem like nonsense and see what conclusions they lead to. Because I'd taken a course on biomechanics in college from a guy named Tom MacMahon, one of my favorite teachers, I knew about scaling laws, and I knew that big animals would be weeded out by a fall from high up, so it seemed like a nice joke-explanation for the extinction of the dinosaurs. But I didn't know of a venue for the joke. I thought of Marc Abrahams' journal "The Annals of Improbable Research", but I never got around to submitting it.

Then I learned about BAHFest, and thought I could give a talk on the subject. It took a few years for things to work out, because the first few BAHFests were limited to specific topics, and my idea didn't fit in. But eventually they opened it up so that any wacko theory could be submitted, and I jumped on the chance.

Q. What was the process of turning the idea into a presentation?

A. First I wrote up a proposal, which I sent to the organizers. They liked it and made some suggestions, which I incorporated, and ultimately they chose my talk to be one of the six. That, for me, was a bigger high than actually winning. I was over the moon for a solid week. I'm sure my wife and kids found me insufferable.

Then I had to figure out how to turn my idea into a presentation. My wife Sandi Gubin and a media specialist at my school named Randy Tyndall were a big help there, because I'm not very good with PowerPoint. But I'd say Zach Weinersmith, the guy who came up with BAHFest in the first place, provided the most help. He and Ben Lillie watched me give the talk twice via Skype, and both of them gave me ideas for how to make it funnier.

For instance, they urged me to come up with more ideas for how humanity could try to prepare for a gravitational reversal event. They also had me tone down my enthusiasm during one part of the talk, where a more subdued, dry style of presentation was the funnier way to go.

Q. At one point you started to walk off the stage and then went back. What happened?

A. Before the talks we presenters were cautioned to look at the audience, not the judges. I said I'd do my best to forget that the judges were there. I really, really succeeded! When my talk was over, I forgot that I'd have to let the four judges grill me. Wishful thinking, I guess.

Also, you may have noticed at the end that I absent-mindedly left my statuette on the stage!

Q. What do you plan to do with the statuette?

A. I have a very messy office. The statuette is somewhere in there. The only reason it won't get buried under successive layers of academic debris is that it doesn't have a flat top.

Q. Is this your first foray into combining science with humor?

A. I try to enliven my research talks in various ways, including the use of humor. But up till now that's always been subordinate to conveying ideas. At BAHFest, the humor was the key thing.

Before the show, Marc Abrahams and I had a short discussion of humor in science. He felt that until recently you weren't allowed to mix science and humor. I feel that it's a little more complicated than that; think about Feynman's irreverence, or the famous photo of Einstein sticking out his tongue! Marc and I never got to finish that conversation. But I do think that people tend to pigeonhole other people, so there's a chance that some very staid, humorless people in the scientific community will take my ideas less seriously because they've pigeonholed me as an entertainer rather than a thinker. Oh well!

Incidentally, Zach stresses that BAHFest has no serious purpose, but he takes seriously the idea that BAHFest shouldn't inadvertently spread misinformation. At one point I used a quote that some people have attributed to Rachel Carson but which wasn't actually hers, and I said to Zach "Should I worry about spreading the mis-attribution?" and he said "Absolutely!" So he came up with a very nice, funny fix for that; the attribution I gave in my talk was "Rachel Carson, according to the internet".

Q. You mentioned that teacher who taught you biomechanics. What were some of your other influences?

A. I picked up a love of argumentation from my dad, who is a lawyer. Understanding the truth means being able to see all sides of an issue, and one way to measure that is, can you argue for a position that you don't actually believe, making the strongest possible case that you can, without actually lying?

Peter Schickele was an influence too. His whole P.D.Q. Bach thing made fun of classical music as a way of showing love for it, and in fact P.D.Q. Bach was my entree to the world of classical music. I think what BAHFest is doing for science is very parallel. Also, Gerard Hoffnung gave a speech to the Oxford Union that had one hysterical bit about a bricklayer and a barrel going up and down and up and down, and if you listen carefully you may hear me copying his cadences in a couple of places.

Another influence on me was Alfie Kohn, the education advocate. He has a very brash speaking style that I find annoying but riveting. When I need to communicate with a large audience, I sometimes try to channel him.

Q. Did the audience response surprise you?

A. I was surprised that people laughed at my acronym. I called the hypothetical events GRE's, which was short for Gravitational Reversal Event, because that just seemed like the most natural name. I guess that in some part of my mind I was aware that the term "GRE" stands for Graduate Record Exam, but it never occurred to me that people would laugh at the acronym. Maybe it was nervous laughter, triggered by flashbacks to the whole traumatic process of applying to graduate school! Anyway, if I'd thought harder, I might have tried to find a way to call them OGRE's, "ogres", which would have worked as a pun.

Q. There's a YouTube video of the talk now. Is there anything that's missing from the video?

A. The question-and-answer discussion with the judges is missing, and in particular, their question about sea-creatures. I kind of nudged them in that direction by talking about land animals and flying animals but not mentioning marine animals, and that was intentional, because I had a prepared answer. If you think about it, the oceans are really deep compared to land; there are only ten or twenty feet of loose top-soil in most places, but the ocean goes down hundreds of feet. So there'd be a huge amount of water falling up and then down, and this means that sea-creatures of any size would get pulverized by turbulent water smashing down around them. But lakes are a lot shallower than seas and oceans, so my theory predicts that fresh-water fish would have survived the extinction event better than salt-water fish. Which is a true fact!

The video is also missing my short acceptance speech. I said: "In a time when real science is mistaken for fake science, and bad science masquerades as good science, it is so important to make a place in the world for bad science that says that it's bad science."

Q. Any advice for people entering BAHFest?

A. I'd advise staying away from using puns and funny acronyms. I think the best jokes from the talks didn't come from trying to be funny; they came from desperately seeking ways to defend an indefensible theory .

Something I wish someone had told me was to view the grilling by the judges as more of an exercise in collaborative improv comedy. At the time I was kind of scared that they would poke holes in my theory and that I'd be flummoxed, but looking back on it, I think several of the judges were actually trying to help me find additional funny things to say about my theory.

One of the other speakers, Olivia Walch, did a brilliant job of handling one of the judge's questions. She said something like "I'm not familiar with that, but I will answer as if I am" before launching into an answer. I think that's the kind of comic stance you should take when you face the judges.

One thing I did that I think served me well was, I rehearsed the piece to death. Once I finalized the words I wanted to say, I recorded them on my phone as a voice memo, and practiced over and over. At first, I was saying the words a second after the recorded version of my voice; by the end, I was saying them a second BEFORE the recorded version. That's when I knew I had the talk essentially memorized. But I still needed to have the security of a back-up system, in case I choked up and my memory failed me. That's why it was so important to me to use PowerPoint presenter mode, which gives you a way to read from notes that only you can see. Anyway, when you have the words down cold, you have a chance to look at the audience more, which lets you connect with them more. Ironically, preparation can help you fake spontaneity.

My final piece of advice is, drink water! I sounded hoarse during my presentation because I forgot to hydrate.

Q. There was a radio spot on WGBH about your presentation. Have old friends contacted you saying "Hey, I heard you on the radio"?

A. Yes, a few of them have! Not old-old friends, but a few people I haven't heard from in a couple of years.

I liked the WGBH piece a lot, because they played a lot of my presentation. But I wish the piece had included excerpts of the other speakers; they were very funny too.

When I was young I wanted to be on Zoom --- it was a TV show created by kids, for kids on WGBH back in the seventies --- so I guess hearing my voice on WGBH radio was kind of a fulfillment of that. Or at least it's as close as I'll ever get to that dream.

Q. Are you enjoying your moment of fame?

A. Right after BAHFest I took my wife and kids out for ice cream near MIT and someone there recognized me and asked me for my autograph (for the first and possibly last time in my life). It was awesome.

Q. Are you planning to do more science humor? BAHFest 2018, maybe?

A. I would definitely do BAHFest again, and other things like it. But is there anything else like it? In my teens and twenties I did a lot of acting, and in my thirties I did a lot of story-telling; maybe someday I'll get back to that.