APS News

Book Review

Celebrating Scientific Silliness with the Best of AIR.

The Best of Annals of Improbable Research. Edited by Marc Abrahams. [W.H. Freeman & Company, 1998.] $14.95.

Buried amid the commemorative volumes, posters, T-shirts, Einstein mousepads, and other trinkets on sale at the APS Centennial meeting in Atlanta, I stumbled across The Best of Annals of Improbable Research (AIR), edited by Marc Abrahams, emcee of the notorious Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, held annually at Harvard University every fall. Numb from an endless parade of sessions earnestly detailing the unquestionable glories of science past and present, the volume provided me with an unabashedly gleeful celebration of scientific silliness. It's impossible not to love a journal that reviews the cafeterias at the world's great research institutions, rating not only food quality and trendiness of the setting, but also the number of photos of bearded men displayed on its hallowed walls.

The book opens with a brief history of AIR - including its early origin as the Journal of Irreproducible Results - and a reprint of the first ground-breaking article by the late Alexander Kohn in 1955, entitled "Kinetics of Inactivation of Glassware," which explored the high degree of breakability of glass products. Likewise, the entire seven-year history of the Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies are highlighted, including entertaining photographs of the festivities, snippets of the more amusing "acceptance speeches," and shortened versions of a few of the original papers honored in the ceremony.

The bulk of the volume is devoted to a generous sampling of humorous "papers" that have appeared in the pages of AIR over the years, subdivided according to specialty. For instance, under "Astronomy, Physics and Food," we find an insightful analysis of the chaotic "butterfly effect," in which the authors apologize to the country of France for excessive rainfall, which they attribute to a single butterfly living in Lausanne, Switzerland. Also included are seminal studies of the aerodynamics of potato chips, the effects of peanut butter on the rotation of earth [conclusion: "none"], and the correlation between tornadoes and the preponderance of trailer homes in any given region.

Under "Medicine and Biology," we find the classic 1995 AIR article investigating the taxonomy of Barney, which concludes that the creature is not, in fact, an actual dinosaur, as well as a paper exploring the medical effects of kissing boo-boos. In "Mathematics and Models," one paper estimates the value of love based on Bob Dylan lyrics, most notably 1965's "(Love-0)/No Limit" from the album Subterranean Homesick Blues. Those interested in educational issues can peruse a thorough investigation of the behavior of dead students in a classroom, concluding that while dead students exhibit exemplary behavior and perfect attendance, they perform very poorly on exams.

One of my favorite entries was "Cindy Crawford Discovers" (or, "The Face Value of Science"), in which AIR staff member Alice Shirrell Kaswell scans the latest women's beauty magazines for emerging scientific breakthroughs. Her findings include supermodel/actress Elizabeth Hurley's foray into engineering with a skimpy Versace dress held together by safety pins. Kaswell also laments her ignorance of mysterious substances called "volumizers," and ponders the scientific significance of such pithy statements as "Women over 30 should avoid dark mascara," and "Night creams are more emollient than day lotions."

Also excerpted are the best of Abraham's irreverent "Nobel Thoughts" column, in which Nobel Laureates expound on such pressing concerns as how to deal with junk mail, the relative merits of beer and potato chips, whether to use a pencil or pen, and how to distinguish between fatheads and phonies. Harvard's William Lipscomb, the 1976 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and a devoted admirer of Sherlock Holmes, responds to every question with an example of the fictional detective's famous scientific method, as illustrated in various case histories. And consider the classic response of Dudley Herschbach, a co-recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, when asked to give advice to young people entering the field: "One thing that frightens students is the feeling that you've got to get it right. But science lets you get it wrong a lot of the time. Being a scientist is like being a musician. You do need some talent, but you have a great advantage over being a musician. You can get 99% of the notes wrong, then get one right and be wildly applauded." But perhaps the greatest insight into the scientific mind is offered by Karen Hopkin of National Public Radio, the originator of the highly popular Studmuffins of Science calendar project and an occasional contributor to AIR. What has she learned? "That most scientists, at heart, believe themselves to be studmuffins," she writes. "I had very little trouble convincing my PhDs to pose. It's like they were just sitting in the lab, waiting for the phone to ring. 'A pinup calendar? Why, of course. I'll have my assistant bring my Speedos at once.'"

-Jennifer Ouellette Associate Editor, APS News



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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette