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Things you need to know: the instigator of the Ig Nobel Prizes has collated examples of wacky research into a new book.

The long and honourable Christmas tradition of finding some episodic reading material for those times of necessary solitude-a book to put in the loo-has never been so spoilt for choice. There are witty obituary books of past lives, collections of letters that failed to be published in national newspapers, cartoon collections, television quiz tie-ins-all manner of literature designed to be instantly pickuppable and just as instantly putdownable, for those moments when you only have a moment. (And no, of course it doesn't have to be that particular moment: these kinds of book work well for commuting, the brief and untaxing period before sleep comes, and pretty much anywhere else too.)

Science has been bulking fairly large in this area for quite a few years now, with a succession of books from columns such as New Scientist's regular questions-and-answers feature alongside slightly weightier volumes chronicling the discovery and development of scientific concepts and everyday items. It's pop science territory that Bill Bryson has mined with huge success, following his travelogues. And the gist of all of it is that you can pick the book up, discover an interesting and/or amusing nugget, and then put it down again. Hopefully with a smile as well as some fleeting enlightenment.


So where does environmental engineering fit into this rich vein of literary life? Well, this year, if you proceed from the basis that the discipline is about testing devices, artefacts and systems to determine the truth about their performance, then there's a slim volume that might be just what's wanted.

The Ig Nobel Prizes are an annual conflation devised by the science writer Marc Abrahams to "honour" published pieces of research that have all the scientific and intellectual rigour that they should have, but that still leave you at the end thinking "so what?" They are testimony to the sometimes obscured dictum that, while good research should always lead to increased knowledge, sometimes that knowledge actually may not be worth knowing or is of interest to such a restricted number of people that publication is really a step too far. However good the research method that produced it.

The Ig Nobel Prizes reward work in different field-like the real Nobel Prizes. And now Abrahams has collected past Ig Nobel winners and nominees, plus other instances from his regular column in The Guardian newspaper, and produced a book from them. It's a lot of fun. And eminently dippable.

Take, for example, the Dutch researcher whose work has been to investigate the physical properties of custard. In four years, rarely working alone, he produced 10 learned papers on custard-related topics, mainly in the apparently fruitful area of how different consistencies of custard feel on the palate of the consumer. One published paper was entitled "The Influence of Bite Size and Multiple Bites on Oral Texture Sensations" and described two custard experiments; another, slightly indigestibly, outlined tests where custards were mixed with the eater's own saliva before ingestion.

The point about this example, and many others, is that Abrahams manages to tread a very careful line. You can see that Mr Kipling, or Mr Ambrosia, or any of the other people for whom custard is a make-or-break business reality, would need to know these things: get your custard texture wrong and you don't have a custard business any more. Abrahams succeeds in highlighting amusement without pouring scorn (or custard) on the researchers or their work: it's for the most part gentle stuff; a stroll past the laboratory benches of unlikelihood.

But not entirely. In a very few instances, the book is having a bit of a go at people who overplay their hand, or investigate questions that didn't need to be asked, or present unscientific conclusions in a mock-scientific way, or publish material that shouldn't ever have been published. If there is a target for this gentle satire, it is probably the learned and academic publishing community who disseminate the research results and sometimes the companies or public organisations who are keen for scientific repute and get to fund it.

And sometimes, of course, the research produces no useful results at all. "In 1998 ... three scientists in Wales published 'What Sort of Men Take Garlic Preparations?' Their conclusion: 'Men who take garlic supplements are generally similar to non-garlic users.'" Aren't you pleased you now know that?

This is improbable, by Marc Abrahams. Oneworld Publications, [pounds sterling]10.99. ISBN 1-85168-931-6

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Title Annotation:Back page; 'This Is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens, and Other WTF Research'
Author:Pullin, John
Publication:Environmental Engineering
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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