Skip to main content

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

The Bastard Legion (SF) - Gavin Smith *****

Science fiction has a long tradition of 'military in space' themes - and usually these books are uninspiring at best and verging on fascist at worst. From a serious SF viewpoint, it seemed that Joe Haldeman's magnificent The Forever War made the likes of Starship Troopers a mocked thing of the past, but sadly Hollywood seems to have rebooted the concept and we now see a lot of military SF on the shelves.

The bad news is that The Bastard Legion could not be classified as anything else - but the good news is that, just as Buffy the Vampire Slayer subverted the vampire genre, The Bastard Legion has so many twists on a straightforward 'marines in space' title that it does a brilliant job of subversion too.

The basic scenario is instantly different. Miska is heading up a mercenary legion, except they're all hardened criminals on a stolen prison ship, taking part because she has stolen the ship and fitted them all with explosive collars. Oh, and helping her train her &…

The Laser Inventor - Theodore Maiman ****

While the memoirs of many scientists are probably best kept for family consumption, there are some breakthroughs where the story is sufficiently engaging that it can be fascinating to get an inside view on what really happened. Although Theodore Maiman's autobiographical book is not a slick, journalist-polished account, it is very effective at highlighting two significant narratives - how Maiman was able to construct the first ever laser, despite having far fewer resources than many of his competitors, and how 'establishment' academic physicists, particularly in the US, tried to minimise his achievement.

On the straight autobiographical side, we get some early background and discover how Maiman combined degrees in electrical engineering and physics to have an unusually strong mix of the practical and the theoretical. Rather than go into academia after his doctorate, he went into industry - which seems to have been responsible for the backlash against his invention, which we…