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.'

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

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?

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.

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.

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.

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