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This Is Improbable Too, By Marc Abrahams: Book review


In 1991, the editor of the journal Annals of Improbable Research, Marc Abrahams, hosted the inaugural Ig Nobel prize ceremony, recognising the achievements of Erich von Daniken, the author of the barmy Chariots of the Gods?, in the field of literature, and of Jacques Benveniste, a proponent of homeopathy, in the field of chemistry. But what began as straightforward parody has since become something more interesting. The purpose of the annual Ig Nobels these days, explains Abrahams, is twofold: to qualify, a piece of research must “first make people laugh, then make them think”.

This is Improbable Too, Abrahams’s second compendium of hundreds of such “WTF research” snippets, includes papers about the “Effects of High-Speed Drill Noise and Gunfire on Dentists’ Hearing” and the “Modelling of Interaction Between a Spatula and a Human Brain”. The humour derives from an incongruity between the specificity of scientific language and methodology, and the messy variety of the material world and human behaviour.

“Prior to 2008,” says Abrahams, for example, “no one knew, at all precisely, the pain people suffer when they gaze at an ugly painting – relative to what they’d feel if they were looking at a pretty picture – while a stranger shoots them in the back of the hand with a powerful laser beam. ” Thanks to researchers at the University of Bari in Italy, we know that volunteers’ subjective experience of pain is marginally higher when they are looking at bad art. 

But is this good or bad science? Sometimes you can judge from Abrahams’s snarky tone alone. But too often he is happy just to inform us of the existence of a quirky paper, without much bothering with its findings. When he comes to discuss “the most frequently cited study on the topic of foreskin colour” – Bryan Fuller’s 1990 paper “The Relationship Between Tyrosinase Activity and Skin Color in Human Foreskins” – Abrahams details the author’s extensive preparation of the foreskins, which are trimmed, sliced, homogenised, centrifuged, sonicated and saturated with something called Hank’s Balanced Salt Solution. “Now, at last, the foreskin bits get analysed,” Abrahams says. “But that is a story for another time.”

What you have in This is Improbable Too is a detailed map of the most arcane byways down which members of the scientific community have travelled, when a guide book would have been more interesting.