Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

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.'

(Page 2 of 2)

It quickly became clear that the cat could be dispensed with.
Q: Improbable research doesn't have to be scientific, right?
A: There was a long study about the history of the paper clip, but only one aspect: how the paper clip affected legal proceedings throughout the United States. In some cases, whether there was or wasn't a paper clip on a thick stack of documents was used as evidence that someone saw or didn't see the document. There were all kinds of regulations and laws about how things must be fastened: a paper clip or a staple?
Q: What's the oldest improbable research you've come across?
A: There's a beautiful report that must be close to 200 years old now from someone who was trying to figure out how fast the wind goes inside a tornado.

Skip to next paragraph

Recent posts

First you've got to find a tornado. But you can't go and stand there. That might be dangerous.

They came up with something that might behave a little like a tornado. They took some dead chickens, looked at the feathers on them, put them inside a cannon, aimed it straight up, and figured that when the chicken is flying through the air, the wind will be pretty similar to the wind in a tornado.

Then they'd be able to count how many feathers were missing. That would allow them to calculate how much force was in the wind.

About 150 years went by, then in the 1950s or '60s, scientists ran across this old report and realized there were some problems in the way they did this.

One of the scientists was Bernie Vonnegut, the older brother of Kurt Vonnegut, who was interested in science at least in part because he had an older brother who was a pretty well-known scientist.
Q: So was this an effective way of measuring tornado wind speed?
A: If you tracked down that carcass, you have no way of knowing how much of the effects you were seeing came from the wind and how much came from the explosion inside the cannon.
Q: Are there researchers who have performed a lot of improbable research?
A: Professor John W. Trinkaus has published almost 100 studies about things that annoy him. They're all everyday things.

One of them is about the express line where you're supposed to have 10 items or less. He counted how many times customers had less than the amount or more.

Now we know.

Generally, he finds that whatever the problem it is, it's getting worse over time.
Q: That doesn't sound like very optimistic research, does it?
A: It's not. But I think it cheers him up. He seems to have that outlook that everything is falling apart, and he can get proof of that. He's still counting things that annoy him.
Q: Well, at least he has a hobby. What about truly pointless research?
Q: A researcher named Beth Scanlon of Central Connecticut State University published a 1985 study called "Race Differences in Selection of Cheese Color."

She went to a supermarket, set up a table with pieces of white and yellow cheese, and stopped people and asked them if they'd like to take a piece of cheese. She'd note the ethnicities of those who chose the types of cheeses. There were just numbers and no explanation of what they might mean or why she was asking.

I have read this study any number of times, and I've shown it to people and have written about it, and I have yet to run across anyone who would understand what this person could have possibly hoped to learn.

It's beautiful that way.
Q: You were never able to track the author down. We could put out an APB for her. Beth Scanlon, where are you?
A: Maybe it will bring her out of the woodwork.
Q: Or at least out of the supermarket. Beth, hello?!

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.


  • Weekly review of global news and ideas
  • Balanced, insightful and trustworthy
  • Subscribe in print or digital

Special Offer


Editors' picks:

What are you reading?

Let me know about a good book you've read recently, or about the book that's currently on your bedside table. Why did you pick it up? Are you enjoying it?

Doing Good


What happens when ordinary people decide to pay it forward? Extraordinary change...

Endeavor Global, cofounded by Linda Rottenberg (here at the nonprofit’s headquarters in New York), helps entrepreneurs in emerging markets.

Linda Rottenberg helps people pursue dreams – and create thousands of jobs

She's chief executive of Endeavor Global, a nonprofit group that gives a leg up to budding entrepreneurs.

Become a fan! Follow us! Google+ YouTube See our feeds!