Wednesday, 17 October 2012

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

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