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Weird science: 'This Is Improbable' chronicles the world's strange experiments

Writer Marc Abrahams discusses some of the world's oddest scientific innovations in his book 'This Is Improbable.'

By Randy Dotinga / November 29, 2012

Writer Marc Abrahams serves as the master of ceremonies at the 2011 Ig Nobel awards ceremony, which honors peculiar scientific efforts.

Michael Dwyer/AP


Have you ever wondered about why woodpeckers don't get headaches? Or pondered the multisegmental dynamics of hula-dancing, the courtship behavior of ostriches toward humans, or the reason why discus throwers get dizzy but hammer throwers don't?

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Scientists have. In fact, they've wondered about countless strange topics and written countless studies about them.

Marc Abrahams, editor and co-founder of the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research, has been tracking bizarre research since 1994.

He's the master of ceremonies at the annual Ig Nobel awards, which honors scientists and others who've launched peculiar research or done peculiar things. Yes, many of the winners come. And yes, they love it.

Recent honorees include the inventor of a bra that transforms into protective face masks, researchers who studied why bedsheets wrinkle, and the US Government General Accountability Office "for issuing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports."

Abrahams has compiled some of the world's oddest scientific efforts in his new book "This is Improbable."

I asked Abrahams to describe some of his favorite improbable research, explain its value (if any), and get to the bottom of the pressing issue of the "forces required to drag sheep across various surfaces."
Q: What is improbable research?
A: It makes people laugh and then think. When you first encounter it, there's something so unexpected that it's funny, then a week later you're still thinking about it.
Q: Is this all serious research?
A: When something is called research, it means somebody is trying to understand something nobody has made much sense of.
Q: Do they understand how strange it can look to, say, discover what happens if you give an anti-depressant medication to a clam?
Everybody does things that look pretty strange to people who don't do those things. They forget it will be interesting to other people and maybe funny.
Q: What's an example of scientists not realizing that their project is pretty darned loony?
A: There was a study called "An Analysis of the Forces Required to Drag Sheep across Various Surfaces."

That was done by seven scientists in Australia in a part of the country where raising sheep is one of the main industries.

When they shear those sheep, they bring thousands of sheep in a very short period of time into one giant building. The sheep do not always want to move where they're asked to, and the shearing involves big equipment that can be very dangerous.

The people who run the industry are always looking for ways to make the sheep move more quickly. It has to do with a lot of money and the potential for injuries. They brought these scientists in, and they found that if you design your floors differently, things will go better. One of the main conclusions is that it's easier to drag the sheep downhill instead of up.
Q: Shocking! What did the researchers say when you contacted them?
A: That was the first time it occurred to them that what they'd done seemed funny. They'd been brought in by an industry to solve a problem, and they've done that.

Q: A lot of strange research has to do with farming. What's up with the cows and the cat?
There was a study done in the 1940s somewhere in the Midwest by some professors who studied dairy cows. They were trying to figure out exactly why sometimes cows give a lot of milk easily and sometimes it seems to get stuck in there.

They tried to see what happens when a cow is startled, to see if the milk would come out. They came up with a technique of startling a cow: they'd put a cat on the cow's back and blow up paper bags, popping one every 10 seconds.


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