[Guest Post] Best of the Annals of Improbable Research

The following is a guest post by Brandon Findlay, who regularly blogs at ChemTips. We’re glad you could join us, Brandon.

Best of the Annals of Improbable Research

Well, almost.  For some reason my institution does not have a subscription to the Annals of Improbable Research, so this list includes only articles I have access to:  the once-per-issue free works (published before January, 2008).

Let’s start off with the classic Postal Experiments.  The author(s) decided to test the reliability, speed, and patience of USPS workers by mailing several dozen unusual packages.  Items ranged from valuable (a laminated, clearly visible $20 bill) to worthless (a wrapped brick [1]), with several absurd items thrown in for good measure (ex. a helium balloon, deer tibia and wooden postcard).

Then, from my alma mater comes a study on the Second-Hand Effects of Bitching. It draws some interesting conclusions, but I did have trouble validating some of the references.  Bitch Studies Quarterly, for example, appears to be out of print.

The Morphology of Steve (pdf) must surely have boosted the Annal’s impact factor, as it lists two nobel laureates as co-authors [2].  The attempt to analyze the distribution of “Steves” in the United States began as most academic pursuits do, when the authors discovered that they had lots of otherwise worthless data.  In their own words, “[n]o scientist can resist the opportunity to analyze data, regardless of where that data came from or why it was gathered.

There’s a few more, but the two Annals essays on scientific writing make for a good break point.  The first provides a nice counterpoint to the classic Whitesides Group work, “Writing a Scientific Paper”, with an emphasis on the unspoken conventions of the publishing world.  As an example, when I first started research I was unaware of the importance of citing one’s own work (see here, here, and here, for examples of my naivety), though I was quite familiar from peer review at the undergraduate level that a journal’s editor will always “pick the referee most likely to be offended by your paper, because then at least the referee will read it and get a report back within the lifetime of the editor.”

The second piece is by the same author, and is essential reading for those about to or planning to prepare a thesis.  A PhD thesis of course “is usually a number of disparate chapters whose most important feature is not the thoroughness of the experimental description but rather the width of the margins.” Those writing such important documents are prone to bouts of depression an existential angst, which can be greatly soothed by the assurances in this essay, key of which is “[n]o one will ever read your thesis.”

[1]  Arrived pulverized, after analysis by the DEA.
[2]  Note:  443 of the 447 co-authors were not consulted concerning the use of their names in this article.