The Importance of Strange Science

Science isn't always about new drugs or robots on Mars. In his new book, This is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens, and other WTF Research, Marc Abrahams shows us what we can learn from a man who swallowed a shrew, and other unlikely experiments.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. Consider the shrew, a small harmless, nearly blind animal. If you were to find one scrambling across your kitchen floor, you might shriek or stomp on it. Shrews look a lot like mice. Or you could catch it and release it outside. But what if you ate the shrew, whole, instead? No, you don't debone it. You don't even chew it. You just hack the tail off and swallow it whole. Why? Well, for science, of course.

Two scientists did just that, and their findings went way beyond the culinary world. Make no bones about it. If there's one person who can tell us what we can learn from strange experiments like shrew swallowing, yeah, it's Marc Abrahams, editor and co-founder of the Annals of Improbable Research and the founder and master of ceremonies for the Ig Nobel Prize ceremonies, which you can hear every Friday after Thanksgiving.

Our unlikely shrew story comes from his new book, "This is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens and Other WTF Research," where he's collected all sorts of scientific studies you can't take seriously but you can't dismiss either. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Marc.

MARC ABRAHAMS: Hi, Ira. Did I just hear you say the Animals of Improbable Research?

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Did I say? I don't think I did. But maybe I did. I'd be happy to have - put that in there.

ABRAHAMS: OK. We, believe it or not, get a lot of letters addressed to that.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Let's talk about your book, and why not chew the shrew? What was going on in swallowing the whole thing? Why was that so important?

ABRAHAMS: OK, first the shrew. It's one of many things in the book. This is a paper that's published in 1995 in a journal called the Journal of Archaeological Science. It was done by a couple of anthropologists named Crandall and Stahl at SUNY Binghamton in New York. They called this report of what they've done "Human Digestive Effects on a Micromammalian Skeleton."

What they did was take a shrew, it was a dead shrew, and they boiled it, but they very carefully did not damage any of the bones. They separated it into big hunks between the bones. And one of them swallowed the entire shrew. The report doesn't tell you which one of them. It was either Brian Crandall or Peter Stahl.

Swallowed the whole shrew and then over the next three days they very carefully monitored everything that came out the other end of this person who had eaten the shrew. They gathered everything that came out and they looked in it. What they were trying to find was - are all of the bones that went in at the top end going to come out the bottom end?

FLATOW: Oh.

ABRAHAMS: Everybody had - for generations, archaeologists and other scientists have gone and they found places where something ate a meal.

FLATOW: Right.

ABRAHAMS: Thousands or millions of years ago, there were ancient people or ancient animals and there are the bones there. Pretty clearly something ate a meal and you can see the remains of it, or you can see from the way they're arranged, they came out of the animal. And people had been assuming if you find big bones, that means you've got something that did not have big teeth or something like that. But it occurred to these guys, nobody really knows exactly how much damage the teeth do versus the rest of the digestive system.

So what they did here was take an entire animal and very carefully not chew it at all. There was no damage to the bones as it went into the mouth and down the esophagus. What they found out the other end was that an awful lot of the bones, including a lot of the big bones, were missing. One of the big jaw bones was missing, four of the big teeth and a big chunk of the skull is missing. All damage done by the internal organs, not by the teeth.

FLATOW: Hmm. Was this a candidate for the - one of your Ig Nobel Prizes?

ABRAHAMS: Everything's a candidate for the Ig Nobel Prize. This one has not won. But the disturbing thing here is what it says that - is that there's a lot of science out there done over generations that assumes that damage to bones had to come from teeth or from knives beforehand. Now we know a lot of damage to bones happens from the chemicals inside the body. So there's a lot science out there that people believe in that may not be quite so correct.

FLATOW: And is that one of the reasons why you put a lot of these stories together in your book, to talk about what science is out there that people may not be aware of?

ABRAHAMS: Yeah, yeah. And I'd like to say that this particular story, by the way, I'm kind of happy with the headline I came up with for that. I called it "The Tasting of the Shrew."

FLATOW: We get it.

ABRAHAMS: Uh-huh.

FLATOW: We Shakespeare fans.

ABRAHAMS: Yes, thank you.

FLATOW: We get it.

ABRAHAMS: A lot of things in the book are things that I wrote about in my newspaper column. For about nine or 10 years I've been doing a column every week for the Guardian newspaper in England, and it's about any kind of unexpected, funny thing that I run across or people tell me about. And to do the book, I went back and grabbed a lot of these stories and then did some more digging to see what else have these people done.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Some of the stories seem to have sort of a moral to them, like the one - mysterious one I'm going to call the rectum in a jar.

ABRAHAMS: Yeah, this is the case of the rectum of the Bishop of Durham. If you go to London and you visit the Hunterian Museum, it's a wonderful, wonderful - one - in fact, one of the world's few remaining big medical museums. It's part of The Royal College of Surgeons of England. If you go and visit it, on display on the main floor inside a jar is something they call object RCSHC/P192. The label identifies it as being the preserved rectum of the Bishop of Durham, and we're talking about Thomas Thurlow, who was born in 1737, died in 1791. Would you like to hear the story of why it's in a jar in London on display?

FLATOW: With that kind of teaser, how could I not?

(LAUGHTER)

ABRAHAMS: OK. The - that particular Bishop of Durham was a rich and powerful man. And he came down with some ailments and called in one of the celebrated doctors of the day, John Hunter, a man who, years later, went on to found this museum. Dr. Hunter examined him and told him he had an incurable disease and that it was bad news. The bishop did not want to accept this news, so he was very insulting to this doctor and instead went and insult - and consulted a cattle doctor who gave him some kind of nostrum.

He gave him something called Ward's White Drops which didn't do anything. The poor bishop died a few months later, and Dr. Hunter was the one who performed the autopsy. And he collected the bishop's rectum for whatever reasons and he preserved them in formaldehyde. And when he started his museum, it became one of the main things on exhibit and it's still there.

FLATOW: Hmm. For - yeah, for all of us to take a look at.

ABRAHAMS: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: What made this an outstanding candidate? Just the story like that, for your...

ABRAHAMS: To write about? Well, yeah. The things that I'm always looking for are things that have the quality, as you heard me say a few times, they make people laugh and then think. When you first see them, they're funny. You have almost no choice but to laugh. And then a few days later, you find it still rattling around in your head, and you just want to tell somebody about it. These are the things that really - they're funny mainly because they're so unexpected. There's something about them that you just - at first glance, it's beyond anything you ever had any reason to think about it, just - it's staggering. Maybe later on when you get used to it, it doesn't seem funny anymore, but at first glance...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm, yeah.

ABRAHAMS: So that's where all these things come from. And the - of course, the pick of litter, so to speak, are the 10 things that every year we choose to give Ig Nobel Prizes for, the Ig Nobel Prizes, yeah.

FLATOW: And how do you decide? Now, here is some inside baseball we'd like to know: How do you decide which ones out of all those are going to win the prize?

ABRAHAMS: We decide with great difficulty and much violent arguing. We get something like 9,000 new nominations every year for Ig Nobel Prizes, and we're also out there looking ourselves all the time. And we consider anything that we had looked at in earlier years but not chosen for prize. So now after 22 years, the pool is gigantic. And we're looking for that quality, things that are very unexpected and it make us laugh, and then think, and that we're pretty sure we'll do the same thing.

We have lots of meetings. They are all secret. And the committee really does get into long arguments. Every year, there comes a point over some particular thing. It comes down to a choice of, all right, we have one slot left. Do we pick this one, or do we pick that one? And people in the room start arguing as they've got their favorites. And they're really almost ready to launch into fistfights. And I have to always stop them and say, wait a minute. Remember what prize this is that we're giving. This is the Ig Nobel Prize. It doesn't really matter. Just pick one of them.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And, of course, we play a great portion of Ig Nobel Prizes every Thanksgiving on SCIENCE FRIDAY, the following - that Friday following Thursday.

ABRAHAMS: Yeah. And let me say one great pleasures for me every year, the ceremony is very complicated. It has lots of stuff. It's got 10 Ig Nobel winners. It's got a bunch of Nobel laureates. It's got a new opera that we write every year and some other stuff, all happening very fast. And I'm always impressed and amazed at the job that one of your editors, all of your editors, do. And they take that whole, huge ceremony and they reduce it to a radio hour that actually makes some kind of sense.

FLATOW: Yeah, Charles Bergquist is usually the victim of doing it.

(LAUGHTER)

ABRAHAMS: Well, thank you, Charles.

FLATOW: And this year, it's September 20th?

ABRAHAMS: September 20th. It's a Thursday night and the winners are going to be coming and great secrecy from five continents.

FLATOW: What do they do when they learn they've won?

(LAUGHTER)

ABRAHAMS: Different things. Some people have heard of the Ig Nobel Prize, many have not. To some of them - there have been some winners who have been waiting for it for years. More typically they're not quite sure what it is. Our standard policy, which - it has a few twists now and then. But in general, when we've chosen somebody, we will quietly get in touch with them, offer them the prize and give them the opportunity to quietly to decline the honor. And if they say no, that's fine, that's it. We never mention it. We don't even keep records. We give it to somebody else. But happily for us, not many people decline. Almost everybody accepts.

FLATOW: And some of them - do they actually go on to win the real Nobel Prize?

ABRAHAMS: That's happened at least once. In the year 2000, we gave the Ig Nobel Prize in psychics to two physicists in England, Andre Geim and Michael Berry, who were, and are, quite eminent physicists. They won the Ig Nobel Prize that year for using magnets to levitate a frog. I don't know if you've seen the videos on the Web of that.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

ABRAHAMS: But it's pretty startling to the frog, apparently, than it is to most humans the first time they see it, magnets levitating a frog. Anyway, 10 years after that, Andre Geim was given a Nobel Prize in physics for something different. That's because he and one of his students were the first ones to manage to get a bunch of graphene, a very thin, two-dimensional form of carbon. They figured out how to get enough of it to actually study and use.

FLATOW: Hmm. Talking with March Abrahams, author of "This is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens, and other WTF Research," on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. And I'm sure at Stockholm, when they got their prize, they gave credit to you folks...

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: ... for spurring them on, right?

ABRAHAMS: Well, I talked to Andre afterwards. He did get an awful lot of questions about the frog.

(LAUGHTER)

ABRAHAMS: We've had somebody else too. There's a Harvard physics professor named Roy Glauber, who has been part of the Ig Nobel ceremony, now, for, oh, 15 years, I think. And for 10 years, every year, Roy would be one of the people on stage with a broom, sweeping all those thousands of paper airplanes that people throw at the stage. After 10 years of sweeping paper airplanes on the Ig Nobel stage, Roy Glauber was given a Nobel Prize in physics, not for anything to do with us, of course.

(LAUGHTER)

ABRAHAMS: So there was that one year, he was pretty busy, and he told me after he got back from Stockholm that it was both delightful and irritating that so many reporters wanted to ask him nothing except questions about paper airplanes.

FLATOW: Yeah, that's funny. Let me see if I can get another anecdote or two about your book before you go. Not all of the studies are purely scientific. Some are patents for new inventions that look like they're straight out of a Road Runner cartoon.

(LAUGHTER)

ABRAHAMS: Yeah.

FLATOW: And there was this Ig Nobel Prize for an anti-bank robber, net trap. That was really funny.

ABRAHAMS: Yeah. The prizes go for all sort - excuse me, I'm not thinking of prizes now. The things I'm writing about are also for anything, really, that you can loosely call research. There's a man named Mr. Hsieh in Taiwan. He filed a patent, which he eventually got, for what he calls a Net Trapping System for capturing a bank robber. When you look at the drawing in the patent, it looks almost exactly like something you'd see in a cartoon from 1920, you know, a goofy net that drops down over somebody's head. And that's exactly what he's got. It's a mechanized version of that for a bank. And it's also got something in it where somebody in the bank presses a button to activate it. The thing shines some sort of beam downward. And as soon it detects motion underneath the net, it drops the net.

And that wasn't the end of the story as it turned. I did some digging and found out there are related patents. In the United States, in 1972, a guy named Gustano Pizzo in Jackson Heights, New York, got a patent for something he calls an anti-hijacking system for aircraft. There are drawings of this thing too. Under his system, right in front of the door leading into the cabin in an airliner, there, on the floor, is a set of trapdoors.

And if there's a hijacker standing on those doors, the pilot inside the - of the cabin can press a button. The trapdoors open. The hijacker falls through the trapdoors into a special receptacle where he's wrapped in a net. The captain of the airliner can then press another button and there are some bomb bay doors in the bottom of the aircraft that open, and they drop this net-encapsulated hijacker into the air, he falls. There is a parachute attached. And so this hijacker wrapped in a net, drops, by parachute into the arms of the waiting authorities who have been alerted by radio.

FLATOW: Wow.

ABRAHAMS: Yeah.

FLATOW: And he was award - did he pick up an Ig Nobel Prize?

ABRAHAMS: Oh, we didn't give him an Ig Nobel Prize.

FLATOW: No? No.

ABRAHAMS: It's just there in the Annals, the patents.

FLATOW: And - yeah. And we're talking with Marc Abrahams. His book is - if you want to read more of these wacky ideas and stories, it's a great read. It's called "This is Improbable: Cheese String Theory, Magnetic Chickens, and other WTF" - we can't say what that stands for - "Research." Thank you, Marc. We look forward to this year's Ig Nobel Prizes. Good luck with the book.

ABRAHAMS: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Have a great weekend.

ABRAHAMS: You too. Thanks very much.

FLATOW: That's about all the time we have for this hour.

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