The Chemical Educator, Vol. 5, No. 2, S1430-4171(00)02377-4, 10.1007/s00897990377a, © 2000 Springer-Verlag NewYork, Inc.
The Best of Annals of Improbable Research (AIR). Edited by Marc Abrahams. W. H. Freeman: New York, 1998. Illustrations. vii + 208 pp. 21.5 × 27.5 cm. $14.95. Softcover. ISBN 0-7167-3094-4.
Reviewed by: George B. Kauffman, California State University, Fresno, firstname.lastname@example.org
In the general public's view, science and humor are antithetical, and scientists are considered to have no sense of humor. Of course, we chemists and chemical educators know from personal experience that this assumption is unjustified, and we are well acquainted with the cartoons of Sidney Harris and others that we have photocopied and used as pasquinades posted on bulletin boards, office doors, or laboratory walls. Also, scientific spoofs and science-related humor regularly appear in journals and magazines and have often been collected into hardbound and paperbound volumes.
My first encounter with a scientific spoof occurred during my second year of teaching (my first year of teaching at what was then Fresno State College). Brother Myron Collins, a student in my Fall 1956 Advanced Inorganic Chemistry course, handed me a typewritten copy of an apparently anonymous paper titled "The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thyotimoline," written in typically learned scientific style and format, complete with tables, graphs, footnotes, and references. It discussed the effect of hydrophilic (water-loving) groups in increasing the solubility of compounds and described experiments with a remarkable substance that was so soluble that it dissolved before the solvent (water) was added! Because the paper involved the extrapolation of data by unthinking rote to obtain this unusual result, I made frequent reference to it in my General Chemistry lectures, especially in connection with the iodine clock demonstration (Landolt reaction) [1, 2]. Since the time required for the solution to become blue decreased with increasing concentration of the reactants, by extrapolation of the plot of time versus concentration, I was able to demonstrate the effect of thoughtless extrapolation at sufficiently high concentrations, the solution should turn blue before the reactants were mixed!
Years later, after I had learned of the existence of the Journal of Irreproducible Results, the forerunner of the journal featured in the volume reviewed here, under the pseudonym Namffuak B. Egroeg (my name spelled backwards) I submitted the thyotimoline article, which I considered an ideal paper for the periodical, to the editor, Alexander Kohn, a professor of virology at the Tel Aviv University Medical School. He responded angrily that the article had been written and published previously by Isaac Asimov  and accused me of being a plagiarist attempting to appropriate Asimov's intellectual property and pass it off as my own. Despite my protests, he refused to accept my explanation (where was his sense of humor?), and despite my later favorable review  of his book on the role of chance in scientific discovery , I fear that from his perch in heaven (he died in 1994) he still looks down on me as an unmitigated scoundrel.
The history of Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) began on April 1, 1955 with the publication of the first issue of the Journal of Irreproducible Results (JIR), consisting solely of a single spoof, "Kinetics of Inactivation of Glassware" (included in the AIR collection), describing the many ways in which test tubes, pipettes, Petri dishes, and other scientific glassware can be broken. The article's author, Professor Kohn, was later joined by a coeditor, Harry J. Lipkin, a professor of particle physics at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel. Eventually the demand for subscriptions to AIR, soon a major venue for scientific humor, became so great that the two editors, who had worked on it as a hobby, were unable to cope with the demands of the overly successful journal. After numerous editorial and business vicissitudes, JIR was sold in 1990, and the new publisher asked Marc Abrahams, an applied mathematician at Harvard University, to edit the journal, which he did until 1994.
In January 1995 the first issue of Annals of Improbable Research: The Journal of Record for Inflated Research and Personalities, edited by Abrahams, appeared as the bimonthly successor to JIR. Abrahams has described its contents as "about a third genuine, about a third concocted, and about a third of our readers [including sometimes this reviewer] cannot tell the difference." According to the editor, "Items marked with a star (*) are based on material taken straight from standard research (and other Official and Therefore Always Correct) literature. Many of the other items are genuine, too, but we don't know which ones." According to Wired magazine, "AIR is one of the finest contributions to western civilization."
AIR boasts an editorial board that should be the envy of any other periodical, scientific or otherwise: 68 authorities from 11 different countries and 50 fields from anthropology to urology, including 8 Nobel laureates (Jerome Friedman, Walter Gilbert, Sheldon Glashow, Dudley Herschbach, Sir John Kendrew, William N. Lipscomb, Richard Roberts, and Mel Schwartz; the late Linus Pauling was a founding member of the board) and Marilyn Vos Savant, possessor of the world's highest IQ.
In The Best of Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) Abrahams has assembled a book-length, copiously illustrated collection of reprints of some of the juiciest tidbits from the magazine, beginning with "The Improbable History of AIR" (Chapter 1, two selections). Chapter 2 consists of 9 interviews (with James Watson, Roald Hoffmann, Herschbach, Roberts, Schwartz, David Baltimore, Pauling, Lipscomb, and Sidney Altman) from the magazine's section, titled "Nobel Thoughts: Profound Insights of the Laureates," of which Abrahams states, "Some of our favorite mail at AIR comes from parents and teachers who have seen their children get excited by these strange little discussions." Among the profound questions asked and answered are: "How do you deal with junk mail?" "Which do you prefer, pencils or pens?" "Do you buy new cars or used cars?" "Do you recommend that people read in the bathroom?" "To what extent did your schooling interfere with your education?" "Could you discuss the relative merits of beer and potato chips?"
Chapter 3, "Ig, Ig, Ig Nobel A Different Kind of Prize" (7 selections), deals with the Ig® Nobel Prizes, a spoof of the Nobel awards that are known to persons completely unaware of the existence of AIR, which sponsors them (Abrahams is the awards creator and master of ceremonies). Ten Ig Nobel Prizes are awarded annually for achievements that "cannot or should not be reproduced." Plastic statuettes are presented to the recipients by genuine Nobel laureates every October at Harvard University's grand old Sanders Theater in the presence of an audience of about 1200 spectators, and the "lavish, oxymoronic" ceremony is broadcast live on the Internet (http://www.ignobel.org) and later on National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation: Science Friday" and the C-SPAN TV network. It is covered by newspapers, radio, and TV news organizations around the globe as well as by all the major science journals. The chapter includes a complete list of Ig Nobelists from the prize's inception in 1991 through 1996, several entertaining acceptance addresses, and "We Are Amused," an editorial from the British science journal Chemistry & Industry praising the award and attacking Britain's chief scientific advisor, Robert May, "a pompous killjoy," and his criticism in the journal Nature of the awards.
Chapters 4 through 9 present articles arranged according to scientific field: "Astronomy, Physics and Food" (15 selections), "The New Chemistry" (8 selections), "Biology and Medicine" (15 selections), "Medicine and Biology" (14 selections), "Math and Models" (10 selections), and "Education, Scientific and Otherwise" (8 selections). Most of these chapters include "Scientific Gossip," "May We Recommend: Items that merit a trip to the library" (reference citations sent in by AIR readers to amusing articles in other journals), and "AIR Vents: exhalations from our readers" (letters collected from various issues of AIR). Chapter 10, "Irrepressible Research" (6 selections), contains such miscellaneous articles as "How to Write a Scientific Paper," "Furniture Airbags," "Internet Barbie and the Time Caplet," "Internet Adventures" (choice items from mini-AIR, a free monthly electronic supplement to AIR), "Project AIRhead 2000" (items attempting to capitalize on the approaching year 2000), and "With God in Mind" (the relation between science and religion): "The important question is: will God enjoy this book? If we find an answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason for then we would know the mind of God." A four-page double-column index, rare in collections of this kind, makes the volume particularly user-friendly.
Readers of The Chemical Educator will be particularly interested in the selections in the chemistry chapter, which begins with a discussion of "chemophobia": "Chemistry seems to intimidate people. Bubbling test tubes, obscure Germanicallystrungtogetherlonglonglongchemicalnameswithnumbersinthem4godknowswhatreason, rumors that those who go into the profession have higher mortality rates than anyone else that is chemistry as viewed by much of the general public." "Apples and Oranges A Spectroscopic Comparison," with its infrared transmission spectra of a Granny Smith apple and a Sunkist® navel orange, will provide you with a simple, devastating weapon to use the next time someone accuses you of comparing apples and oranges, and "Xerox Enlargement Microscopy (XEM)" describes a new revolutionary technique that achieves subatomic resolution levels with standard copying machines, thus making electron microscopes obsolete. In "Quantum Interpretation of the Intelligence Quotient (QI of IQ)," Nobel laureate Dudley Herschbach solves the long-running controversy about how to measure human intelligence. For chemical educators a "Science Demonstration: Scratch 'n' Smell for beginning and intermediate chemistry students" features a "handout prepared using microencapsulation techniques" that allows students to smell the characteristic odors of two chemical substances, H2O and O2, and "The Politically Correct Periodic Table" simplifies chemistry by containing only 60 elements, the remaining ones being banned because they are sources of pollution, toxicity, radioactivity, greenhouse gases, or hypertension or involve sexist nomenclature. "Scientist/supermodel Symmetra," an "Ann Landers with modeling experience and a knowledge of advanced chemistry," uses her "Ask Symmetra" column to solve people's personal problems by dispensing advice in the form of equations, while "Cindy Crawford Discovers: The face value of science" summarizes "important scientific discoveries that were reported in the pages of obscure research journals such as Cosmopolitan, Vogue, GQ, and the New York Times."
But there are numerous selections in the chapters dealing with sciences other than chemistry that will tickle the funny bone of chemists. Their contents can be gleaned from their titles, e.g., "The Aerodynamics of Potato Chips," "the Taxonomy of Barney [the purple PBS dinosaur]," "The mickeymouse Gene," "Arrivederci, Aroma: An Analysis of the New DNA Cologne" (for which the author Jon Marks of Yale University was awarded the 1996 Ig Nobel Prize for chemistry), and "the Medical Effects of Kissing Boo-Boos." "The Effects of Peanut Butter on the Rotation of the Earth," coauthored by 202 PhDs (most of the names are disguised forms of well-known personalities, living, dead, or fictional, such as I. V. Boesky, M. Louise Ciccone, D. D. Eisenhauer [sic], O. E. Holmes, Mycroft Holmes, R. M. Nixon, and Marge Thatcher) presents its conclusion and the entire article in one sentence: "So far as we can determine, peanut butter has no effect on the rotation of the earth."
I have presented only a brief sampling of the zany, whimsical, and wacky items and articles, both real and fabricated, that enliven the pages of this rib-tickling collection. Humor is an individual and personal matter (chacun à son gout), but this collection should contain something for everyone scientists, science lovers, science haters, and science teachers and students. Despite the occasional exception such as the late astronomer Carl Sagan, who thought that AIR was dangerous "because it causes people to laugh at scientists," and Charles Goodwin, who panned the book in a recent Internet review written in the form of a scientific paper , I think that most scientists will find the volume ideally suited for browsing or reading. By demonstrating in a light-hearted manner that science is a human activity and that its practitioners indeed have a lively sense of humor and can laugh at themselves, it can provide new and unusual insights and perspectives into the scientific enterprise and act as a safety valve to the seriousness of our everyday labors. It can also be a useful weapon in our arsenal to combat chemophobia and anti- science stereotyping, both in our students and the general population. Enjoy!
Because The Chemical Educator is an electronic journal, the following URLs related to AIR may be of interest to readers:
AIR website for up-to-date news and schedules: http://www.improbable.com or http://www.improb.com
AIR bits on Usenet: http://clari.tw.columns.imprb_research
To subscribe to mini-AIR send e-mail to LISTPROC@AIR.HARVARD.EDU. The body of the message should contain only the words: SUBSCRIBE MINI-AIR MADAME CURIE (You may substitute your own name for that of Madame Curie).
References and Notes
1. Shakhashiri, B. Z. Chemical Demonstrations: A Handbook for Teachers of Chemistry; The University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, WI, 1992; Vol. 4, pp 16 25.
2. Kauffman, G. B.; Hall, C. R. J. Chem. Educ. 1958, 35, 557.
3. Asimov, I. In Chemistry and Science Fiction; Stocker, J., Ed.; American Chemical Society: Washington, DC, 1998; pp 205210; reprinted from Astounding Science Fiction; Street and Smith Publications: New York, March 1948.
4. Kauffman, G. B. J. Chem. Educ. 1990, 67, A241.
5. Kohn, A. Fortune or Failure: Missed Opportunities and Chance Discoveries in Science; Basil Blackwell: Cambridge, MA, 1989.
6. Goodwin, C. Avail. URL: http://chemweb.com/alchem/1999/books/bk_991001_air.html.