David Hu: "Wasteful Research"? Nah.
"I think I’ve learned my lesson."
Editor’s note: This is adapted from a speech, Cube-shaped Poo and Georgia Tech’s Second Ig Nobel Prize, by David L. Hu, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Biology and Adjunct Professor of Physics of Georgia Institute of Technology on October 8, 2019. We would like to thank Dr. Hu, Maureen Rouhi, Communications Director of the Georgia Tech College of Sciences, along with Ed Greco of the Georgia Tech Department of Physics for their help in making this excerpt a reality.
About two years after I published this study, I came upon a surprise.
My university told me to watch this show, Fox and Friends, and I’ll show a brief segment here:
So this is a TV show called Fox and Friends, and [then-Senator] Jeff Flake had highlighted twenty of the US’ most “wasteful studies”. It turns out that I was responsible for one-eighth of the list, three of those twenty studies.
[ Crowd laughter ]
My Three Most Wasteful Studies for 2016 were:
How Many Shakes Does It Take for a Wet Dog to Dry Off?: In that study we measured how animals can dry themselves; a dog takes about four shakes per second but a mouse has to shake thirty times per second. It was the first to show that dogs actually lose 90% of their water in a fraction of a second. It showed that loose skin is very important for their evolution. At first, there was a little interest from Maytag and other washing machine companies in understanding how you can get water off so quickly, and it has to do with the whip-like action of the skin. The study also gave a lot of input into studies of Parkinson’s Disease. In Parkinson’s disease, they actually study what’s called “WetRat Shake”, and theses are caused by tremors. This study gave a lot of input into what is a true rat shake and gives us calibration whether drugs for Parkinson’s Disease are actually working or not.
Which has More Hair, a Squirrel or a Bumblebee?: That’s what I won my Chinese Ig Nobel Prize with, for showing that bees actually move their pollen by, instead of being smooth like a tabletop, by being really hairy. What that does allows the pollen to be suspended, and the tips of the hairs are like catapults, every time they groom the hairs, the hairs shoot off the pollen, kind of like Pig-Pen from Snoopy. There was a later study that cited this one, that made a medical patch. The problem with current medical patches is that they put in beads of medicine and you don’t get enough contact; but they showed that by making a hairy patch that mimics the hairs of the bee, it can actually triple the amount of the medicine you can put on contact with this patch. So they made a patent, something that doesn’t look at all like a bee based on the same principle of having small spines that can hold the medical particles.
How Long Does it Take to Pee Like a Race Horse?: A lot of these things that we take for granted, these animal motions, no one has actually quantified them to the extent that they can be used for science. For example, now that people know that animals need to urinate for 21 seconds, they can start designing prosthetic devices that can make a long sustained urine stream.
All funded here at Georgia Tech.
[ Crowd applause ]
So I took a hit for all my fellow scientists. And I have to confess, I’ve read this entire report, these studies are actually fascinating.
The one that they really highlighted was this: Are Cheerleaders More Attractive in a Squad? It had to do with image processing, basically, when you see multiple faces in a crowd, you just look at the average of those faces, which makes us look at sorority pictures and fraternity pictures as more attractive because we see these faces as a little bit more averaged out. This is great insight into neurobiology.
So when I saw this game on this TV show, Fox and Friends, my only response was just do nothing and crawl into a hole and feel bad about myself. But Jason Major, he was a press person at Georgia Tech, said, “You need to respond. None of the other scientists are saying anything, but you’re on this list three times! You got to respond to all of that!”
So basically he gave me three days to write the response, Confessions of a Wasteful Scientist and published it in Scientific American. And I talked about the history of these kinds of attacks, and this kind of attack has been going on for the last twenty or thirty years. The original award was called The Golden Fleece Award, which was given to any public official in the US for purportedly wasting public money. And there are those historians who have commented that Congresspeople have always found a way to beat upon us eggheads, that’s anyone who does science or technology. The Congressman supposedly shows up to be “a champion of the common person” by beating up people who seem to be like they have their heads up in the clouds. And the media will then pick up reports like Flake’s because they’re looking for something cute in the universe and that sounds ridiculous, it’s the equivalent of a cat video.
So it gets politicians a lot of hits to their website but has a terrible, terrible effect not on scientists but on the public image of science. It has, what the president of PIXAR calls, a “chilling effect” on research, that everyone who does research becomes a little more conservative, and a little more scared that they are going to get caught, doing something that they could fail at. What, as the president of PIXAR says, failure in research is essential. If you fear failure it could distort the way you choose projects and ultimately impede science progress.
So when I wrote that report, Senator Flake responded the same day on Facebook, and he said:
So I consider that a win.
[ Crowd laughter ]
And there’s been a lot of criticism of his report, because of his incorrectly cited dollar amounts, the omission of essential content, and that it’s also a serious problem for the public image of science. The reason it’s so serious is that people are not in a position to evaluate what this Senator says and whether the report is really valid. The fact that some prominent Senator is putting this out and casting some serious doubt on whether federal agencies can function efficiently and effectively. So this is a serious attack against science, and this is just going to happen again.
And after dealing with [then-]Senator Flake, I said: “ I will not publish another paper on urination.”
So, a few months later, after his report, I published this report called The Hydrodynamics of Defecation in the journal Soft Matter.
[ Crowd laughter ]
I think I’ve learned my lesson.
And this paper had some scientists from other fields that I had no idea they were interested in my work. There’s this one civil engineer who said, “I really enjoyed your paper on defecation. Your paper concludes with the hope that the work inspires others to further quantify body processes.”
“To that end, I'd like to measure the exit velocity of diarrhea.” [ Crowd laughter ]
So this is an environmental engineer tracking how diseases spread by putting sensors in toilets that determine how often people have diarrhea. And he actually has a grant from the Canada Science Foundation to build such a device and we’re collaborating.
And there’s also an astronomer, who says, “I’m working on a hypothesis of advanced extraterrestrials eating stars, that I call “stellivores”. They’re stars that eat other stars, and I think some of the physics that we’ve found is consistent with them ingesting and pooping out another star.”
I wouldn’t have met any of these people unless I have stood up to [then-]Senator Flake and published this work.
The two Ig Nobel events were pretty much the happiest moments in my scientific career. It starts with a phone call, Marc Abrahams [editor and co-founder of Annals of Improbable Research] calls you. That was the first time that I have ever met him, and I thought the Ig Nobel Prize was a total joke; it was just there to make some laughs.
But then after meeting Marc at the ceremony, and meeting the SIX Nobel Laureates that donate their time in the ceremony, and the hundreds of people that were there, and the huge international following, I felt differently. The Ig Nobel Prize is really just a sneaky way to get people interested in science. It shows that scientists have a sense of humor. And I think all of you here at Georgia Tech might’ve known that, but the general world doesn’t have any scientific role models, scientists that just enjoy themselves like real human beings. So the Ig Nobel really fills this gap. It makes us scientists human and allows us to have fun for one night.
It’s a pleasure to be thrown paper airplanes at and heckled by an eight-year-old girl, both of which appeared in the ceremony.