Skip to main content

This is Improbable – Marc Abrahams ****

The Ig Nobel Prize has become something of an institution in the science world. Year after year, respected scientists turn up to have their leg pulled about the topic of an academic paper they have had published (or occasionally a patent application). The man behind the Ig Nobels, Marc Abrahams, writes a column on ‘improbable research’ and this book is a collection of these articles, though often enhanced for the book form.
The tag line of the Ig Nobels is that it is for research that makes you laugh… then makes you think. This is true, although you often think ‘I don’t know how they ever managed to get funding for that research,’ or ‘How could they have the front to present that as science?’ A classic example of the latter is a piece where the incidence of wearing high heeled shoes is correlated with the rise of schizophrenia. It’s hard to start on what’s wrong with this paper – particularly the Science 101 error of confusing correlation with causality. It really is excruciating.
Others are just hilarious in the phrasing. My overall favourite was one on the mechanical properties of cheese. I nearly fell off the chair when reading that research ‘reported a change in the stress-strain behaviour of Gouda cheese when plates were lubricated with oil as opposed to when they were covered with emery paper.’ Boggle.
My only concern is that these things work better on an occasional exposure rather than a whole bookful at once. I found myself in overload reading the thing end to end – it meant that I found some topics a bit dull. I think this would be a book that is better dipped into (kept in the obvious location, I guess) than devoured in one sitting.
Inevitably Improbable makes for a good gift book – excellent for anyone of a scientific bent – or just to keep yourself amused in spare moments. I am assured that Abrahams didn’t make any of these papers up – but you will find it hard to believe.

Paperback 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…