David Hu was altering his toddler son’s diaper when he received the concept for a research that finally gained him the Ig Nobel prize. No, not the Nobel Prize — the Ig Nobel prize, which payments itself as a reward for “achievements that make folks snigger, then assume.”
As male infants will do, his son urinated everywhere in the entrance of Dr. Hu’s shirt, for a full 21 seconds. Sure, he counted off the time, as a result of for him curiosity trumps irritation.
That was a very long time for a small child, he thought. How lengthy did it take an grownup to empty his bladder? He timed himself. Twenty-three seconds. “Wow, I assumed, my son urinates like an actual man already.”
He recounts all of this with no hint of embarrassment, in particular person and in “The best way to Stroll on Water and Climb up Partitions: Animal Actions and the Robotics of the Future,” simply printed, through which he describes each the silliness and profundity of his model of analysis.
Nobody who is aware of Dr. Hu, 39, can be stunned by this story. His household, pals, the animals round him — all encourage analysis questions.
His spouse, Jia Fan, is a advertising and marketing researcher and senior knowledge scientist at U.P.S. Once they met, she had a canine, and he turned intrigued by the way it shook itself dry. So he got down to perceive that course of.
Now, he and his son and daughter generally convey residence some form of lifeless animal from a stroll or a run. The roadkill goes into the freezer, the place he used to maintain frozen rats for his a number of snakes. (The legless lizard ate pet food). “My first response isn’t, oh, it’s gross. It’s ‘Do we’ve area in our freezer,’” Dr. Fan mentioned.
He additionally saves earwax and enamel from his youngsters, and lice and lice eggs from the inevitable schoolchild hair infestations. “We’ve separate vials for lice and lice eggs,” he identified.
“I might describe him as an iconoclast,” Dr. Fan mentioned, laughing. “He doesn’t observe the social norms.”
He does, nevertheless, observe within the footsteps of his father, a chemist who additionally cherished amassing lifeless issues. As soon as, on a household tenting journey, his father introduced residence a road-killed deer that he sneaked into the storage underneath cowl of night time.
The butchering, a primary time occasion for everybody within the household, he wrote as soon as in a father’s day essay for his dad, “was an intense studying and sensory expertise. There have been plenty of organs in an animal, I discovered.”
His personal curiosity has led him to investigations of eyelashes and fireplace ants, water striders and horse tails, frog tongues and snakes.
Dr. Hu is a mathematician within the Georgia Tech engineering division who research animals. His seemingly oddball work has drawn each the ire of grandstanding senators and the full-throated assist of a minimum of one particular person in command of awarding grants from that bastion of frivolity, america Military.
Lengthy earlier than his function within the Brett Kavanaugh affirmation listening to, Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, put three of Dr. Hu’s analysis initiatives on an inventory of the 20 most wasteful federally funded scientific research. The tv present, “Fox and Buddies,” featured Sen. Flake’s critique.
Naturally, Dr. Hu made the assault on his work the premise for a TEDx discuss at Emory College, through which he took a bow for being “the nation’s most wasteful scientist” and went on to argue that Sen. Flake utterly misunderstood the character of fundamental science.
Dr. Hu was tickled to assume that one scientist could possibly be answerable for such supposed squandering of the general public’s cash. Neither he nor his supporters had been deterred.
Amongst these supporters is Samuel C. Stanton, a program supervisor on the Military Analysis Workplace in Durham, N.C., which funded Dr. Hu’s analysis on whether or not fireplace ants had been a fluid or a stable. (Extra on that and the urination findings later.)
Dr. Stanton doesn’t share Dr. Hu’s flippant irreverence. He speaks earnestly of the areas of science to which he directs Military cash, together with “nonequilibrium data physics, embodied studying and management, and nonlinear waves and lattices.”
So he’s utterly critical when he describes Dr. Hu as a scientist of “profound braveness and integrity” who “goes the place his curiosity leads him.”
Dr. Hu has “an uncanny skill to establish and observe by means of on scientific questions which can be hidden in plain sight,” Dr. Stanton mentioned.
On the subject of physics, the Military and Dr. Hu have a deep affinity. They each function at human scale on this planet outdoors the lab, the place situations are sometimes moist, muddy or in any other case tough.
In understanding how physics operates in such situations, Dr. Stanton defined, “the vagaries of the actual world actually come to play in an attention-grabbing manner.”
In addition to, Dr. Stanton mentioned, the Military isn’t, as some folks may think, at all times “in search of a widget or one thing to go on a tank.” It’s excited about elementary insights and authentic thinkers. And the strictures of the hunt for grants and tenure in science can generally act towards creativity.
Generally, Dr. Stanton mentioned, a part of his job is convincing educational scientists “to decrease their inhibitions.”
Evidently, with Dr. Hu that’s probably not been a difficulty.
An aspiring physician is led astray
“Utilized mathematicians have at all times been sort of playful,” Dr. Hu mentioned not too long ago whereas speaking about his educational background — though they’re maybe not fairly as playful as he could be. Just a few years in the past he did gymnastic flips onto the stage of a Chinese language recreation present that generally showcases scientists.
He grew up in Bethesda, Md., and whereas he was nonetheless in highschool, he did his first printed work on the energy of metals that had been made porous. He was a semifinalist for the Westinghouse Science Prize (the forerunner of the Intel Science Prize) and gained a number of different awards.
That work helped him get into M.I.T., which he entered as a pre-med pupil planning to get an M.D./Ph.D.
He was quickly led astray.
Dr. Hu’s undergraduate adviser at M.I.T. was Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan, a mathematician who works to explain actual life processes in rigorous mathematical phrases.
Dr. Mahadevan, recognized to college students and colleagues as Maha, investigated wrinkling, for instance. Naturally he gained an Ig Nobel for that work.
“Maha lit the fireplace,” Dr. Hu mentioned. Earlier than he encountered his adviser’s analysis, he mentioned, “It didn’t actually make sense that you may make a dwelling simply enjoying with issues.”
However he got here to see the probabilities.
He stayed at M.I.T. for graduate work, within the lab of his adviser, John Bush, a geophysicist. Dr. Bush remembers him as very enthusiastic.
Requested by e-mail about a few of Dr. Hu’s wilder forays into the physics of on a regular basis life, he mentioned, “A way of playfulness is actually factor in science, particularly for reaching a broader viewers.” However, he mentioned, “focusing on foolish issues isn’t technique, and I do know that David has taken appreciable flack for it.”
Dr. Hu stands out as the first third-generation (by way of scientific pedigree) Ig Nobel winner, as a result of Dr. Mahadevan studied underneath the late Joseph Keller, a mathematician at Stanford College. Dr. Keller gained two Ig Nobels. One was for learning why ponytails swing from side-to-side, relatively than up and down, when the ponytail proprietor is jogging. The opposite was an examination of why teapots dribble.
After M.I.T., Dr. Hu did analysis on the Courant Institute at New York College, one other hotbed of real-world arithmetic. He moved to Georgia Tech, after Jeannette Yen, a biologist there, advised the college they ought to try him.
From ants to self-assembling robots
Dr. Hu’s analysis could look like pure enjoyable, however a lot of it’s constructed on the concept how animals transfer and performance can present inspiration for engineers designing human-made objects or methods.
The title of Dr. Hu’s ebook refers back to the “robots of the long run,” and he emphasizes the best way animal movement provides insights that may be utilized to engineering — Bio-inspired design.
When Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands flood, as an illustration, fireplace ants kind rafts so tightly interlaced that water doesn’t penetrate their mass. When he picked up such a mass within the lab, Dr. Hu writes, it felt like a pile of salad greens.
“The raft was springy, and if I squeezed it all the way down to a fraction of its top, it recoiled again to its authentic form. If I pulled it aside, it stretched like cheese on a pizza.”
He discovered that the ants had been continuously shifting despite the fact that the form of the mass stayed roughly the identical. They had been breaking and making connections on a regular basis, and so they turned, in essence, a “self-healing” materials.
The thought is interesting for a lot of engineering functions, together with concrete that mends itself and robots that self-assemble into giant, complicated constructions. Relying on the pressure utilized to them, a mass of 100 thousand ants or so can kind a ball or a tower, or move like a liquid.
He and college students in his lab additionally confirmed that the explanation mosquitoes don’t get bombed out of the air by water droplets in a rainstorm is that they’re so mild that the air disturbed by a falling drop of water blows the mosquitoes apart. The discovering may have functions for tiny drones.
In addition they confirmed that the best size for a row of mammalian eyelashes is one-third the width of an eyeball. That provides simply the correct windbreak to maintain blowing air from drying out the floor of the attention. Synthetic membranes may use some sort of synthetic eyelashes.
And what about urination? It didn’t make sense to Dr. Hu grown man and an toddler would have roughly the identical urination time.
After he despatched out undergraduates, underneath the steerage of Patricia Yang, a graduate pupil, to time urination in all of the animals on the Atlanta Zoo, the scenario turned much more puzzling. Most mammals took between 10 and 30 seconds, with a median of 21 seconds. (Small animals do issues otherwise.)
The important thing was the urethra, primarily a pipe out of the bladder, that enhanced the impact of gravity. Even a small quantity of fluid in a slender pipe can develop excessive strain, with astonishing results.
Water poured by means of a slender pipe into a big wood barrel can break up the barrel. Dr. Hu mentioned the experiment, referred to as Pascal’s barrel, could be replicated these days with Tupperware.
What’s attention-grabbing concerning the urethra biologically is that its proportions, size to diameter, keep roughly the identical regardless of the dimensions of the animal (so long as it weighs greater than about six and a half kilos).
The 21-second common urination time have to be evolutionarily necessary. Maybe any longer would entice predators? However then predators are topic to the identical rule. In any case, the precept of easy methods to successfully drain a container of fluid could possibly be helpful, Dr. Hu wrote within the authentic research, to designers of “water towers, water backpacks and storage containers.”
As common, in his ebook Dr. Hu doesn’t neglect the human facet of his work, or deal with it too critically. He refers back to the urethra as a pee-pee pipe. And he corrects his son when he brags that solely he, not his sister, has a pee-pee pipe.
Not so, Dr. Hu insists. The urethra is current in men and women.
As soon as older, his youngsters could by no means forgive him for this ebook. However center faculty science lecturers and nerds all over the place will thank him.