Reprinted from Discover.com
BY POLLY SHULMAN
March 1998

The Best of Annals of Improbable Research. Edited by Marc
Abrahams. W. H. Freeman, 1997, $14.95 paperback.

The editors of Annals of Improbable Research (air) have proved beyond
a doubt that the most important piece of equipment in a scientific
humorist's laboratory is the deadpan. The many studies and reports
from the physical, biological, and mathematical sciences collected
here demonstrate the wide application of this indispensable tool.

A report from the developing field of nanotechnology describes efforts
to build the world's smallest toaster. "What advantages will
nanotoasters have over conventional macroscopic toaster technology?
First, the savings in counter space will be substantial," predicts
author Jim Cser. "One philosophical point that must not be overlooked
is that the creation of the world's smallest toaster implies the
existence of the world's smallest slice of bread," he adds. "In the
quantum limit we must necessarily encounter fundamental toast
particles, which the author will unflinchingly designate here as
'croutons.'

The folks at air poke fun not just at science itself but also at its
culture, politics, and methods: "Scientific papers . . . are an
important, though poorly understood, method of publication. They are
important because without them scientists cannot get money from the
government or from universities. They are poorly understood because
they are not written very well," writes one satirist.  And "The
Ability of Woodchucks to Chuck Cellulose Fibers" concludes with an
acknowledgments section sure to draw bitter laughter from grad
students everywhere: "The authors wish to thank the first-year
graduate student (whatever his name is) for collecting and examining
the vomitus and fecal material, and for reviewing all 336 hours of
videotape."

But perhaps the most profound lesson readers will take away from the
best of air is this piece of advice Nobel Prize winner Sidney Altman
offers to young people entering the field: "Watch out for the
cowpats."