Power tool sex mishaps make you see double

Annals of Improbable Research

May 9, 2003

Jacques Guy is left reeling by the outlandishness of some scientific research.

"How heavily does the hen sit on her eggs during incubation?" Could that really be the title of a serious published scientific paper? You shake your head in disbelief. You rub your eyes. You shake your head again. Has your brain fallen out? No, you have been reading the Annals of Improbable Research.

In every issue one is helpfully reminded that "the features marked with a star (*) are based on material taken straight from standard research literature". "How heavily the hen..." was one of those starred items. You grudgingly concede that well, yes, after all... but the next item, also attributed to the same journal, Experentia, is titled "Seasonal changes of circadian pattern in human rectal temperature rhythm under semi-natural condition". By the time you reach "Autoerotic fatalities with power hydraulics" ( Journal of Forensic Science ), you are prepared either to believe anything or to reject everything.

The Annals of Improbable Research (AIR for short) should be taken in small doses, like 140-proof Polish vodka. I received 20 issues in a single consignment - 40 months' supply - and two months later I am still seeing double. This journal - from the people that also brought the world the IgNobel prizes - is Fortean Times edited by Monty Python. Not the staid Monty Python of the Life of Brian, but the zany crew who search for the Holy Grail and the Meaning of Life. It is difficult to swallow that the 80 or so people of the AIR editorial board are real, especially when some are marked as "convicted felon", "accused racketeer" or, last but not least, "Nobel laureate". But having spent much time checking the existence and credentials of a dozen of them via Google, I am reluctantly cornered into admitting "it's all genuine, folks" (although whether some are indeed convicted felons and accused racketeers remains unsolved).

In the tradition of the tabloid press and of the bi-monthly, never-to-be-repeated, everything-must-go special sale, every issue of AIR is a special issue. There is even an annual swimsuit issue, and a resident scientist/supermodel, Symmetra, with a more-or-less regular page, "Dear Symmetra", where she dispenses "elegant solutions to complex problems" (but the problems and their solutions are far beyond this reviewer's feeble grasp of particle physics; only Symmetra's figure appears accessible).

In my befuddled state of mind I detect that the articles of AIR fall - not quite so neatly - into three categories. (Perhaps this is because, if seeing only double, I was soon thinking triple.) First, there are reports of improbable, but true, research papers, such as "How heavily the hen..."; then there are send-ups; and finally and incredibly, serious articles (at least one - or have I been had?).

The one serious article is about the "Tring tiles" in the British Museum, published in November/December 2002. It is not a send-up, it is not a hoax, it is not a report of some ridiculously worded piece of research, it is typical of the best articles in Fortean Times. What is it doing there? I am far from sure about other possible candidates for seriousness. The March/April 2002 issue has a translation of Der Mondschaf of the German surrealist poet Christian Morgenstern. It is an awful translation. Is it a send-up? Is it a tongue-in-cheek demonstration of the Italian saying traduttore, traditore (translator, traitor)?

The bulk of AIR is certainly send-up. Many readers will be put off by those that delighted me, others delighted by those that left me agape, wondering what is this possibly about? "The effect of television on sexual behaviour" is a Pythonesque lampoon of psychological studies, but oh, so true! "The sleep-retardant properties of my ex-girlfriend" is a tutorial into how to camouflage the obvious in a grand-sounding demonstration steeped in bogus statistical methods. "The mathematics of telephone numbers" reads like Jacques Lacan's reflections on the square root of - 1, with only this difference: the authors did not manage to rid themselves entirely of all rational thought. "How to review a scientific paper" will strike a chord with those who have experienced the crass ignorance of some referees.

Some articles are not strictly send-ups, rather entirely gratuitous pseudo-scientific ravings built around a pun, such as "The theory of gravy" and "Zero-tolerance math", which reminded me very much of the postmodernist philosophers, although I doubt that the authors had those particular targets in mind.

My favourite by far is "Kid's tribute to DNA", pithy enough to be quoted in its entirety without fear of a crippling lawsuit for breach of copyright:

"Hi. My name is Kate. Let me tell you why I like DNA. My favorite singer is Mariah Carey. You know who she is? She's really, really beautiful, and she's, like, a really good singer. I know that Mariah Carey depends on DNA.

If it weren't for DNA, she wouldn't be Mariah Carey. She'd be a fish or something. So that's why I think DNA is great. Thank you."

I couldn't help but think of Jacques Bouveresse's attempt at answering Jacques Derrida's miffed reaction in Le Monde to the famous Sokal hoax in the journal Social Text (you can read Bouveresse in one of the links provided on the AIR website at www.improbable.com ). Bouveresse spends 10,000 words arguing the case. The author of "Kid's tribute to DNA" succeeds in fewer than a hundred, without even trying and, quite certainly, without having had anyone in her sights in particular. (Did a Kate Eppers, age 12, really write this piece? Pull the other one.) Even if unwittingly, "Kid's tribute to DNA" is a vivid demonstration of vacuousness, muddle-headedness and hocus pocus, a one-size-fits-all cloak for naked emperors (just choose your pet emperor).

Some readers will certainly think the "tribute" a silly piece, unworthy of even a satirical magazine. When confronted with a journal such as AIR, so much is in the eye - and the passing mood - of the beholder that one can only dimly hope to give a remotely fair account, fair to the authors and fair to prospective readers.

Some articles (can you call them articles? ) seem wholly pointless. For instance, the seven-page picture feature "Pizza and progress" consisting of 11 plates out of Diderot's Encyclopaedia, with captions concerning "Pizza traps", "Pizza mining", "A pizza mill" and "Pizza lifting and stacking" - via "Slicing pepperoni".

And then there is a four-page picture feature, "Professor Lipscomb makes home-brew tea". True to the title, it shows photographs of an academic-looking elder, demonstrating tea-brewing - nothing less, nothing more. Is Professor Lipscomb really a professor emeritus at Harvard University and a Nobel laureate in chemistry? Answer: yes (according to my directory). Does it matter? Probably not. We might as well ask: is that a toilet seat that Professor Alfredo is holding in scene 2 of act II of Giuseppe Linguini's Il Destino di Grant Application when he "returns home still fuming about his terrible score on a grant application and is greeted by his loving children"? It looks like a toilet seat.

The AIR crew is keen on opera: the 1998 IgNobel prize ceremony saw the performance of a mini-opera, La Forza del Duct Tape, and a photograph elsewhere shows a jolly choir hard pressed not to burst into guffaws in Die Zauber Pipette.

The perpetrators of AIR (they aptly call themselves "conspirators") are probably best known for the IgNobel prize, which exists, in their own words, to honour "achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced", IgNobel prizes are awarded in more fields of science(?) than the corresponding Ig-less Nobel prizes, thus acknowledging the universality of "inflated research and personalities". This is praiseworthy indeed.

Linguists like me, deprived of even the hope of receiving a Nobel prize, will find sweet solace in the Heisenbergian certainty of being awarded an IgNobel some day - if we deserve one. I have a certain grammar of Sumerian in mind, well worthy of the attention of the distinguished members of the AIR board, the self-styled AIRheads.

Nine IgNobel prizes crowned worthy researchers in 1998. My favourite laureate was - (ig)nob(e)lesse oblige - Jacques Benveniste for "his homeopathic discovery that not only does water have memory, but that the information can be transmitted over telephone lines and the internet". It is difficult to believe that such a claim could have made it into the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology under the title "Transatlantic transfer of digitized antigen signals by telephone link". Benveniste also won an IgNobel chemistry prize in 1991. Has he been engaging in a series of hoaxes to be revealed posthumously? That is about the only straw left for you to clutch at if you are in desperate need of believing that all is well in the realm of the sciences. A steady diet of AIR will likely blow away this straw in a gust of wind.

But all is not necessarily fair in the kingdom of IgNobel prizes. What earned Peter Barss the IgNobel medicine prize for his paper on "Injuries due to falling coconuts"? Coconuts do fall from great heights, and injuries are quite common. I have known people in Vanuatu who had suffered from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One was a woman whom a falling coconut had left with one thumb and no fingers on her right hand. She had been carrying her machete in native fashion, held on her head, but with the blade vertical instead of lying flat. Down came a coconut... and it wasn't dropped by an African swallow.

Even horror film-makers will find inspiration in the Annals of Improbable Research, thus this summary of a research paper, quoted in one AIRhead Medical Review: "This case reports the airway management of a patient with a history of orbital exeneration and total maxillectomy. We describe a surprisingly simple method of endotracheal intubation through the orbit of the excised eye." Just make sure you have an empty stomach before you attempt to disentangle the medical jargon.

AIR reports that some laureates do turn up at the ceremony and deliver acceptance speeches. Truth or fiction? The helpful asterisk does adorn the entry for "The 2001 IgNobel prize winners", so we can be fairly sure that the prizes were awarded, and the photographs of the participants having a riotous time are, at any rate, prima facie evidence of something having taken place. But the asterisk is inconspicuously missing from "The 2001 IgNobel acceptance speeches" just below. Were those speeches delivered live from the podium by genuine IgNobel laureates? In, I hope, the true spirit of AIR, I say: "This calls for further research."

Jacques B. M. Guy is a computer scientist interested in natural language understanding. He holds a PhD in linguistics from the Australian National University.

Annals of Improbable Research: he Journal of Record for Inflated Research and Personalities

Editor - Marc Abrahams
ISBN - ISSN 1079 5146
Publisher - Improbable Research, Inc.
Price - $29 (US), $45 (outside US)
Pages - (six times a year)

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