MARTY RUSSELL: Those wacky scientists are at it again

By Marty Russell

There’s been a lot of science in the news this week which has been a welcome relief from all the political bickering over taxes, saber-rattling on the Korean peninsula and speculation that Santa uses WikiLeaks to determine who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.
It began with the announcement by NASA that researchers had trained bacteria found in a dry lake bed in California to substitute arsenic for phosphorus, one of the six chemical elements necessary for all life on Earth, seven if you include beer. That means that life very different from how we know it could exist elsewhere in the universe, even creatures with sulfuric acid for blood, which raises the question, what’s Sigourney Weaver doing these days?
Then this week scientists at CERN (Conditionally Employed Research Nerds) in Switzerland announced they had succeeded in capturing 38 atoms of antimatter, trapping them in a magnetic field so they wouldn’t come into contact with matter, which would be bad for everyone involved. That’s because when matter and antimatter meet, they annihilate each other in an explosion. Now the scientists say they want to create a beam of antimatter. Why? Does it matter? It’s research, that’s their job.
That’s what makes science so much fun. There’s rarely any thought of any practical upshot to such research, it’s just pure curiosity couched in the scientific method and given a serious-sounding title. I can imagine the arsenic bacteria scientists sitting around (probably after a few beers) wondering if they could train bacteria to eat something besides phosphorus.
“How about making them eat peanut butter and banana sandwiches?” one might ask.
“Too easy,” another would reply. “How about fruit cake?”
“Nothing in the universe eats fruit cake,” another would say. “How about arsenic?”
If you don’t believe scientists really do have those kinds of conversations, consider some of the winners at this year’s Ig Nobel prize ceremony held back in September at Harvard.
In the engineering category, the winning research paper was titled, “A Novel Non-Invasive Tool for Disease Surveillance of Free-Ranging Whales and Its Relevance to Conservation Programs.” Sounds very scientific but what is it? Turns out a scientist figured out a way to use a remote-controlled helicopter to collect whale snot. I’m not kidding.
Apparently putting the word “novel” in your title is essential to getting any serious recognition in the scientific world. For example, the physics winner this year was titled, “Preventing Winter Falls: A Randomized Controlled Trial of a Novel Intervention.” The paper concludes that people are less likely to slip on ice if they wear their socks on the outside of their shoes. Probably tough on the socks, though.
So I am currently soliciting grant money for a major research paper titled, “A Novel Approach to Rehydration and Relaxation.” What is it? A self-refilling beer glass.
Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 222 Farley Hall, University MS 38677 or by e-mail at marusse1@olemiss.edu.