Book Review: This Is Improbable!

Dec 12 2012 Published by under Book Reviews

Have you ever wondered how the ideal bottle of liquid would glug when you tried to pour it out? How the sound of a potato chip's crunch changes how crispy you think it is? How stuffing your bra could influence your hitchhiking skills?

What, you never have? Well, fear not! Because no matter what weird you've wondered, there's probably a scientist who has, as well. And where scientists wonder...scientists do SCIENCE.

And some of the craziest of this science has been collected over the years by the incomparable Marc Abrahams, he of the fabulous hat and the wonderful yearly IgNobel Prizes, which celebrates the odd, outre, and often awesome in science every year. Sci got to cover the Ignobel Prizes this year and last year, and Marc is always quick to send me the latest in weird science for your Friday Amusement.  So I was very pleased to receive Marc's latest book on all the wild, weird, and improbable "This is Improbable: Cheese string theory, magnetic chickens, and other WTF Research".

The goal of the Ignobel Prizes, and of Marc's Annals of Improbable Research, is to show off research that makes you laugh...but also makes you THINK. And the research presented in this collection definitely makes you laugh. It may also make you think, even if that thought is just "why the heck would ANYONE study this".

Examples abound. Open this book to any page. Do you know why older style washing machines tended to "walk", or move across the floor? Someone studied that. Did you know some tree dwelling lizards actually tend to fall out of trees? They do, and someone's studied that. Did you know that someone has studied the measurements of Playboy centerfolds over time, whether dogs know, or need to know, calculus, and how people space themselves on the beach? People have studied all of these, and Abrahams has collected them into a hilarious pile of pithy science.

This book (perhaps appropriately, given some of the subject material) is ideal for keeping, say, in the bathroom (speaking of which, has anyone studied the preferred types of bathroom reading material and what percentage of people prefer to read on the loo? I bet Marc Abrahams knows this), where any time you like, you can grab this book, open it to any page, and find out how often adults skip or about the physics of falling cats (no cats were harmed).

Sure, why WOULD people care about the physics of falling cats, or how lions respond to recordings of other lions. But if you think a little harder, you begin to realize that a lot of this strange stuff really does contain useful knowledge. Knowing how people behave in a laundromat can tell you a lot about people in groups of strangers. Finding out how people REALLY feel about chocolate can help people sell chocolate, and determine things about taste and experience. As for a study on "blood and tissue spatter associated with chainsaw dismemberment"...well I'll leave that to the imagination.

But whatever your question, no matter how improbable, you might find the answer to it in this book collection. Or if you don't, you'll definitely find the answers to a lot of other questions you never thought to ask. It's a fun collection with a lot of great cocktail party conversation material, and Abrahams covers it all with a dry wit that let's the hilarity of the work speak for itself. Abrahams has always been one of my weird science gurus, and I hope that some day I too achieve his mastery of the weird science genre. But until I do, I'm going to be pouring over this book, and I definitely recommend that you do, too.


Conflict of interest note: I got this book for free, and Marc is a friend of mine.

2 responses so far

  • [...] Science 1. The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson. Loved it! Really neat to learn about someone discovering something that now seems to us so self-evident. 2. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Excellent, accessible, but can be extremely depressing. 3. The Panic Virus: A true story of medicine, science, and fear by Seth Mnookin. Enjoyable! 4. The Power of Habit: why we do what we do in life and business by Charles Duhigg. I enjoyed the tone immensely, and it was very accessible, but it was one of those neuro-wow books, and I have some bones to pick with the science (though he did cover the Schultz paper!). 5. The Republican Brain: the science of why they deny science - and reality by Chris Mooney. 6. The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean. Very fun and highly recommended! 7. The Stem Cell Hope: How Stem Cell Medicine Can Change Our Lives by Alice Park. 8. Angel Killer: A True Story of Cannibalism, Crime Fighting, and Insanity in New York City by Deborah Blum. Wonderful. Horrid. It's both of those things. She's brilliant as always. 9. This is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens and Other WTF Research by Marc Abrahams. Review here. [...]

  • notap says:

    Can't help wondering what was poured over the book. An improbable liquid, I'm sure.

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