Marc Abrahams’s “This Is Improbable, Too: Synchronized Cows, Speedy Brain Extractors, and More WTF Research,” published last month, isn’t really a sequel to 2012’s “This Is Improbable.” The new book is just the most recent installment in the author’s longstanding quest to find and explore some of the oddest research studies out there.
What Abrahams really loves, he says, are “things that are funny when you first hear of them, but then they stick in your head,” like the marathon efforts of one Liverpool scientist to relate finger-length ratios to all manner of human behavior and character traits. “Many people fail to see how that number means anything at all,” Abrahams says, but others “are cranking out reports” measuring fingers. The ludicrous project prompts Abrahams to quote a friend, the late MIT scientist Jerry Lettvin: “If you can measure it, it must be important.”
Abrahams has been publishing his oddball discoveries for a quarter-century now, but his passion is nearly lifelong. “I discovered newspapers when I was really small,” he says. His hometown paper would fill extra column space with “oddball news — one I remember vividly was ‘Man Flushes Toilet, House Explodes’ — I used to cut them out and paste them into a scrapbook.”
Now, as editor of the Journal of Improbable Research, Abrahams revels in the strange stories people send in. “It’s a glorious time,” he says. “Thanks to the Internet, every day more of the old stuff that people did 10, 50, 100 years ago is getting easier to find.” He adds that he’s always looking for new material, inviting readers to e-mail him at email@example.com.
This year will mark the 24th iteration of another Abrahams project, the annual Ig Nobel Prizes, to be awarded Sept. 18 at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre. The event, at which actual Nobel laureates present prizes to the authors of the year’s strangest scientific studies, has become internationally famous. This year’s ceremony is already sold out, but it will be webcast at www.improbable.com/ig/2014 .
Abrahams will read from the book — along with three special guests (“part of the Ig Nobel gang,” he says) — at 7 p.m. Friday at Harvard Book Store.Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.