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GUEST BLOG: Dropping dead mice by parachute

3rd September 2012 - Marc Abrahams


Marc AbrahamsThe Ig Nobel Awards, first presented in 1991 for scientific research that "that cannot, or should not, be reproduced" are the brainchild of Marc Abrahams, editor of the science humour magazine Annals of Improbable Research and writer of the weekly Improbable Research column in the Guardian.

 

This is Improbable by Marc AbrahamsIn his new book, This is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens and Other WTF Research, he explores some of the odder avenues of research that science has ventured down, without which we would be unaware of why books on ethics are more likely to get stolen, the best way - mathematically speaking - to slice a ham sandwich and what time of the month generates higher tips for lap dancers.

 

In this exclusive blog for Foyles, he presents some of his favourite oddities from the original scientific papers, as well as admitting his own inadvertent contribution to the annals of obscure knowledge.


Enter our competition to win a copy of This is Improbable (closing date: Wednesday 26th September)

 

I collect things that are improbable. By 'improbable', I mean simply: what I didn't expect. I didn't quite know what to make of them, at first, and in many cases I still don't. I expect, or at least hope, they strike you the same way.
The unexpectedness is what makes them funny. The unexpectedness also, in many cases, makes it tough to guess whether these things are bad or good, worthless or valuable, trivial or important, brilliant or its opposite - or all of those or none of those.


If I've chosen well, these are all things that make people laugh, then think. A week after hearing about one of them, you find it's still rattling around in your head, and all you really want to do is argue with your best friends about it.
In the book I try to, mostly, let things these speak for themselves. Here I'd like to mostly let the book speak for itself. So here are some little, insidiously improbable chunks.


Cattle Rustling
"Accordingly, [the cow] was systematically frightened as the mechanical milker was attached. Frightening at first consisted in placing a cat on the cow's back and exploding paper bags every ten seconds for two minutes. Later the cat was dispensed with as unnecessary." So far as I have been able to determine, this experiment was conducted only that one time....


Combing Through the Data
At the time of their investigation, Robbins and Robbins were the leading researchers at Clarence Robbins Technical Consulting, a think tank located in their home in Clermont, Florida. Clermont is just a short drive from four big theme parks - Epcot, Universal Studios, the Magic Kingdom, and MGM Studios. In visiting those parks, the researchers set themselves a simple, clear goal: 'to obtain data on the percentage of persons in the US with different lengths of scalp hair'....


Spacing at the Beach
Beachgoers in three countries found that strangers were coming up to them, asking strange questions. The strangers turned out to be fairly harmless. They were academics, driven by a fierce desire to understand how much space people appropriate for themselves when they plop down on a beach....


Contagious Yawning
"In this report", Baenninger writes, "I describe observations of yawning by a fish [Siamese fighting fish], by a carnivore [a lion], and by two primate species [mandrills and humans]." The humans watched "a semi-professional actor read a passage from Alice in Wonderland (the mock turtle's story)." The other animals watched non-professional non-actors of their own species....


Fold When Wet (If Naked)
He later summarized them, along with many of his other discoveries, in a book called Nekton, written in Russian. An English translation came out in 1977 from a Dutch publishing company with the curious name Dr W. Junk. The volume includes a generous selection of action photos of the women, who are not quite as hairless as advertised, and a few corresponding pictures of dolphins. The images tell a tale which Aleyev interprets in the accompanying text. Skin ripples do appear, but only when the women (and the dolphins) are in a sharp spurt of acceleration or when they move at the very highest speed....


Trinkaus on...
Trinkaus also shows a special fascination with people's adherence to laws, regulations, and customs. His Stop Sign Compliance: An Informal Look, published in 1982, examined how many motorists did - and how many did not - come to a full stop at a particular street corner. Trinkaus did follow-up studies at that same intersection in 1983 (Stop Sign Compliance: Another Look), 1988 (...A Further Look), 1993 (...A Follow-Up Look), and 1997 ...A Final Look). In yet another parallel series of studies, Trinkaus looked at drivers' compliance with a traffic stoplight. Together, these document an unseemly, seemingly unstoppable rise in scofflawism....


Brain on Head in Brain
Russell Brain - who was also Lord Brain, Baron Brain of Eynsham - was editor of the journal Brain. In 2011, the journal Brain celebrated the golden jubilee of the publication of Dr Brain's essay Henry Head: A Man and His Ideas. Head preceded Brain (the man) as head (which is to say, editor) of the journal (the name of which, I note again for clarity, is: Brain)....


A Hot Potato
Each volunteer pronounced three particular vowel sounds, which the doctors recorded and subsequently analysed using special software. The second group was ten healthy hospital staffers, 'with each of these participants placing a British new potato of approximately 50 grams in their oral cavity, warmed by microwave to a "hot" but not uncomfortable temperature'. The doctors detected unmistakable differences....


Perfecting the Drop-Dead-Mice System
If you're going to lace dead mice with poison, and drop them from helicopters into a rainforest in Guam in such a way that they become entangled high in the trees where they might murder the brown tree snakes, but you want to avoid (as much as possible) having the toxically tasty mouse corpses fall all the way to the ground where they could instead get gobbled by coconut crabs, perhaps you should graft them onto something like a parachute. Peter Savarie, Tom Mathies, and Kathleen Fagerstone of the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colorado, did just that....


Trolling for Annoyance
One of the many annoying things about Internet trolls is that it's difficult to define precisely, with academic rigour, what they do. Clare Hardaker, a lecturer at University of Central Lancashire's department of linguistics and English language, took up the challenge. Her study called Trolling in Asynchronous Computer-Mediated Communication is published somewhat counter-intuitively in the Journal of Politeness Research. Hardaker presented an early form of the paper to a mostly troll-free audience at the Linguistic Impoliteness and Rudeness conference....


Oh. There's one thing in the book about which I feel sheepish. It's not the story about the Scottish attempt to profile the personalities of certain sheep. Nor is it the Austrian study, which I mention only glancingly, about performing surgery to alter the facial shapes of certain other sheep. No. It's one little story that's fictional. We, the book's editor and I, had joked about including one fictional story, with a Clear Mention that - unlike everything else in the book - it's concocted. And then, somehow, A Mistake Was Made, and one of my fictional pieces got lodged in there, but the Clear Mention went missing. So... sorry about that. And I hope you can spot which story's the ringer.

 

 

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