The Mysteries of Animal Movement


David Hu was changing his infant son’s diaper when he got the idea for a study that eventually won him the Ig Nobel prize. No, not the Nobel Prize — the Ig Nobel prize, which bills itself as a reward for “achievements that make people laugh, then think.”

As male infants will do, his son urinated all over the front of Dr. Hu’s shirt, for a full 21 seconds. Yes, he counted off the time, because for him curiosity trumps irritation.

That was a long time for a small baby, he thought. How long did it take an adult to empty his bladder? He timed himself. Twenty-three seconds. “Wow, I thought, my son urinates like a real man already.”

He recounts all of this without a trace of embarrassment, in person and in “How to Walk on Water and Climb up Walls: Animal Movements and the Robotics of the Future,” just published, in which he describes both the silliness and profundity of his brand of research.

No one who knows Dr. Hu, 39, would be surprised by this story. His family, friends, the animals around him — all inspire research questions.

His wife, Jia Fan, is a marketing researcher and senior data scientist at U.P.S. When they met, she had a dog, and he became intrigued by how it shook itself dry. So he set out to understand that process.

Now, he and his son and daughter sometimes bring home some sort of dead animal from a walk or a run. The roadkill goes into the freezer, where he used to keep frozen rats for his several snakes. (The legless lizard ate dog food). “My first reaction is not, oh, it’s gross. It’s ‘Do we have space in our freezer,’” Dr. Fan said.

He also saves earwax and teeth from his children, and lice and lice eggs from the inevitable schoolchild hair infestations. “We have separate vials for lice and lice eggs,” he pointed out.

“I would describe him as an iconoclast,” Dr. Fan said, laughing. “He doesn’t follow the social norms.”

Dr. Hu was tickled to think that one scientist could be responsible for such supposed squandering of the public’s money. Neither he nor his supporters were deterred.

Among those supporters is Samuel C. Stanton, a program manager at the Army Research Office in Durham, N.C., which funded Dr. Hu’s research on whether fire ants were a fluid or a solid. (More on that and the urination findings later.)

Dr. Stanton does not share Dr. Hu’s flippant irreverence. He speaks earnestly of the areas of science to which he directs Army money, including “nonequilibrium information physics, embodied learning and control, and nonlinear waves and lattices.”

So he is completely serious when he describes Dr. Hu as a scientist of “profound courage and integrity” who “goes where his curiosity leads him.”

Dr. Hu has “an uncanny ability to identify and follow through on scientific questions that are hidden in plain sight,” Dr. Stanton said.

When it comes to physics, the Army and Dr. Hu have a deep affinity. They both operate at human scale in the world outside the lab, where conditions are often wet, muddy or otherwise difficult.

In understanding how physics operates in such conditions, Dr. Stanton explained, “the vagaries of the real world really come to play in an interesting way.”

Besides, Dr. Stanton said, the Army is not, as some people might imagine, always “looking for a widget or something to go on a tank.” It is interested in fundamental insights and original thinkers. And the strictures of the hunt for grants and tenure in science can sometimes act against creativity.

Sometimes, Dr. Stanton said, part of his job is convincing academic scientists “to lower their inhibitions.”

Needless to say, with Dr. Hu that’s not really been an issue.

Asked by email about some of Dr. Hu’s wilder forays into the physics of everyday life, he said, “A sense of playfulness is certainly a good thing in science, especially for reaching a broader audience.” But, he said, “targeting silly problems is not a good strategy, and I know that David has taken considerable flack for it.”

Dr. Hu may be the first third-generation (in terms of scientific pedigree) Ig Nobel winner, because Dr. Mahadevan studied under the late Joseph Keller, a mathematician at Stanford University. Dr. Keller won two Ig Nobels. One was for studying why ponytails swing from side-to-side, rather than up and down, when the ponytail owner is jogging. The other was an examination of why teapots dribble.

After M.I.T., Dr. Hu did research at the Courant Institute at New York University, another hotbed of real-world mathematics. He moved to Georgia Tech, after Jeannette Yen, a biologist there, told the university they ought to take a look at him.

Dr. Hu’s research may seem like pure fun, but much of it is built on the idea that how animals move and function can provide inspiration for engineers designing human-made objects or systems.

The title of Dr. Hu’s book refers to the “robots of the future,” and he emphasizes the way animal motion offers insights that can be applied to engineering — Bio-inspired design.

When Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands flood, for instance, fire ants form rafts so tightly interlaced that water doesn’t penetrate their mass. When he picked up such a mass in the lab, Dr. Hu writes, it felt like a pile of salad greens.

“The raft was springy, and if I squeezed it down to a fraction of its height, it recoiled back to its original shape. If I pulled it apart, it stretched like cheese on a pizza.”

He found out that the ants were constantly moving even though the shape of the mass stayed more or less the same. They were breaking and making connections all the time, and they became, in essence, a “self-healing” material.

What is interesting about the urethra biologically is that its proportions, length to diameter, stay roughly the same no matter the size of the animal (as long as it weighs more than about six and a half pounds).

The 21-second average urination time must be evolutionarily important. Perhaps any longer would attract predators? But then predators are subject to the same rule. In any case, the principle of how to effectively drain a container of fluid could be useful, Dr. Hu wrote in the original studies, to designers of “water towers, water backpacks and storage containers.”

As usual, in his book Dr. Hu does not neglect the human side of his work, or treat it too seriously. He refers to the urethra as a pee-pee pipe. And he corrects his son when he brags that only he, not his sister, has a pee-pee pipe.

Not so, Dr. Hu insists. The urethra is present in males and females.

Once older, his children may never forgive him for this book. But middle school science teachers and nerds everywhere will thank him.



Source link Nytimes.com

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