Archive for 'Boys Will Be Boys'

The new Improbable book, and its first American review

Saturday, August 9th, 2014

My new book — This Is Improbable Too (OneWorld Publications, 2014, ISBN 978-1780743615) — is now available in America (it was published in the UK this past March). The first US review has appeared, by Steven Poole, in The Wall Street Journal:

The éminence grise behind the Ig Nobels is Marc Abrahams, and for those of us who have heard of only the silliest prize winners, his second compilation of results from the wilder fringes of science suggests that the prize is, after all, rather unkindly named. It is not “ignoble” or entirely stupid and humiliating research but rather, as Mr. Abrahams describes it, research that first makes you laugh and then makes you think….

A prominent thread is a kind of mania for measurement. Readers are likely to think that even the gentle modesty of one researcher is an unwarranted exaggeration when he claims: “The sitting height, leg length, and sitting height index of several groups of Old Virginians is of some interest.” Perhaps the craze for measurement—mensuraphilia? metripathy?—runs in families: The son of the man who measured Old Virginians published a study summing up 35 years of measurements of how fast his fingernails grew.

Then there is the baffling wealth of “2D:4D” research, investigating how the ratio between your second and fourth finger predicts attractiveness or braininess. (Not very reliably, it seems.) Happily, at least, some indefatigable measurers have confirmed the notion that your ears never stop growing throughout your life. The lesson to be drawn from all this is, arguably, optimistic. You can’t have world-changing discoveries without allowing apparently pointless research—not only because the latter sometimes turns into (or at least inspires) the former but because there’s no way to tell what will be important before the results are in….

My favorite British review appeared in The Daily Mail. That review, too, was fairly lengthy. But the tone was different. Here’s my very most favorite part: “It’s almost dementedly inconsequential“.


Also this past week, I was interviewed on The Bob Edwards ShowWithout intending to, I shocked Bob. At the end of the interview he asked me a very general question, to which I gave a very particular answer. The answer involved a historic duck.

You can get the book from Amazon and at most good bookstores.

BOOK TOUR: I will be doing a book tour of sorts in connection with the new book. At some events, I will be joined by colorful scientists, journalists, actors, etc., who will do brief dramatic readings from some of my favorite scientific studies. For details, see the full schedule of events. If you would like to host an event in Boston, NYC, Washington, or elsewhere, please get in touch with us ASAP.

Some of the highlights:

UPDATE (August 10, 2014): Kim Painter did a nice review of  the book, in USA Today today.

THE FIRST ‘THIS IS IMPROBABLE” BOOK: Don’t forget this book’s older sibling, the almost-new Improbable book:

This Is Improbable, by Marc Abrahams, OneWorld Publications, 2012, ISBN 978-1851689316.

Rationalism taken to intoxicating extremes“—The Guardian


Buy a copy (or several!) on

Why do we dig the beach (with bucket and spades)?

Friday, August 8th, 2014

“The bucket and spade holds more significance than its role as a sandcastle-building tool; seen through the tidal changes and the different angles of photography, and especially through their relational engagement with the beach, the agency of the bucket and spade is revealed.”

- explains Adrian Franklin MA Kent, PhD Brist, (Professor of Sociology at theUniversity of Tasmania, Australia) in a newly published paper for the journal Tourist Studies, entitled: ‘On why we dig the beach: Tracing the subjects and objects of the bucket and spade for a relational materialist theory of the beach


With the aid of a series of historical photos documenting bucket-and-spade culture spanning more than 100 years, the author points out that the beach is :

“[...] a place where clear lines between the human and non-human world do not exist, where sensual, muscular and mental engagements are mediated by extensions of the body, the spade and the bucket. It is a choreography of failure for humanity, in which nature, the sea, triumphs every time, even though the child has an opportunity to struggle against it and to reimagine such relation­ships anew.”

Also see: An Improbable short series on ‘Sandcastles in Academia’.

Sandscastle_Small  Sandscastle_Small  Sandscastle_Small
BONUS (cited in the paper) ‘Castles Made of Sand’ by Jimi Hendrix

Whether to go naked if you’re going to be shot: It depends

Friday, August 1st, 2014

The question of whether one is better off being naked or clothed when being shot is not so simple as it may appear.

A 2013 study suggests that if one is going to be shot with a bullet, one might be better off naked. Another study, however, suggests that if one is going to be shot with shotgun pellets, one might be better off wearing clothing. The study is:

klatt_ec_1The effect of intermediate clothing targets on shotgun ballistics,” Kenneth Cail and Edward Klatt [pictured here], American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 2013 Dec;34(4):348-51. (Thanks to investigator Ivan Oransky for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, at Mercer University School of Medicine, Savannah, Georgia, report:

“The ballistic properties of shotgun shells are complex because of multiple projectiles fired simultaneously that interact and spread out to affect their energy relayed to a human target. Intermediate targets such as clothing can affect penetration into tissues. We studied the effect of common clothing fabrics as intermediate targets on penetration of shotgun shell pellets, using ordnance gelatin to simulate soft tissue and thin cowhide to simulate skin. A standard 12-gauge shotgun with modified choke was used with no. 8 shot ammunition. We found that protection afforded by fabrics to reduce penetration of shotgun pellets into tissues was greater at increasing distance from the muzzle beyond 40 yd (36.6 m). The thicker denim and cotton fabrics provided slightly greater protection than polyester.”

BONUS (related): The 2009 Ig Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Stephan Bolliger, Steffen Ross, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael Thali and Beat Kneubuehl of the University of Bern, Switzerland, for determining — by experiment — whether it is better to be smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or with an empty bottle. REFERENCE: “Are Full or Empty Beer Bottles Sturdier and Does Their Fracture-Threshold Suffice to Break the Human Skull?” Stephan A. Bolliger, Steffen Ross, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael J. Thali and Beat P. Kneubuehl, Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, vol. 16, no. 3, April 2009, pp. 138-42.]

Sexual appliances have subclass, says the Patent Office

Monday, July 28th, 2014

“SEXUAL APPLIANCE” is the official name of the US Patent and Trademark Office’s Class 600, Subclass 38Class 600, the broad-ranging general class of which Subclass 38 is a mere part, is for inventions that, in the view of the patent office, have to do with “SURGERY”.

Innovation, as seen by the Patent Office, does not happen willy-nilly. Innovation happens in the real world. In the real world, there are always constraints….

—so begins another Improbable Innovation nugget, which appears in its entirety on BetaBoston.

Hydraulics Tip (penile): ‘A Reservoir Within a Reservoir’

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

Having seen a reservoir within a disused reservoir within “a sixty eight year old gentlemen [sic] presenting with a cystic abdominal mass and bothersome LUTS“, a team of doctors reached a firm conclusion. They present it in this study:

‘A Reservoir Within a Reservoir’ — An Unusual Complication Associated With A Defunctioned Inflatable Penile Prosthesis Reservoir,” Hamid Abboudi, Marco Bolgeri, Rajesh Nair, Andrew Chetwood, Andrew Symes, Philip Thomas, International Journal of Surgery Case Reports, epub 2014. (Thanks to investigator Ivan Oransky for bringing this to our attention.) The authors, at Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton, UK, write:

“It is our belief that a defunctionalized reservoir serves no purpose; rather it can only cause trouble in the future. Consequently, at our institution we do not leave defunctionalized reservoirs in situ.”