Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Ballet dancing flies and the freedom of scientific research


DISCOVER magazine is one of the best reads on the latest happenings in the world of science and technology. There are always a range of interesting articles on their website. Here’s a recent headline: ‘Researchers crack the case of why flies are so hard to swat’. The story went on to describe how a recent scientific paper in Current Biology by biologist Michael Dickinson found the reasons why swatting flies was so difficult (with the help of high speed video photography). Apparently, the flies performed ‘an elegant little ballet with their legs’ before positioning their centre of mass above their two middle legs which are used to jump away from the direction of the threat - read, your swatter! Oh yes, they do all this within 100 milliseconds, which would be considerably faster than the movement of your fly swatter. Michael Dickinson has more to say. Trying to be helpful, he suggests ways to literally ‘beat’ the fly and increase your chances of swatting it into pulp. He suggests that the ‘right way’ to swat a fly is not to aim AT them, because they are extremely good at anticipating where your blow will land (and presumably do their shuffle dance before pushing away). No, the way to successfully swatting a fly is to aim slightly ahead of the fly’s starting position, so that its you doing the anticipation, not the pesky Dipteran. So, there it was.. Another victory for humans and one less mystery in the world. Is that it? Ermm.. Not quite.
When this article was posted on the DISCOVER website, the first comment submitted on this story by readers was by someone called Jackie. Here it is, word for word, caps for caps..
“I AM TRULY PLEASED THAT WE LIVE IN A WORLD WHERE KIDS ARE GOING HUNGRY, GAS IS 50.00 A GALLON, AND OUR SOLDIERS ARE DYING FOR NO REASON (THEY’RE NOT PROTECTING MY FREEDOM, THEY’RE CLEANING UP IRAQ’S MESS ON MY DIME) AND SCIENTISTS ARE GETTING GRANTS FOR THIS CRAP. I AM A BETTER PERSON, NOW, FOR KNOWING WHY A FLY IS SMARTER AND MORE SPRY THAN I. THANK YOU.”
Jackie was apparently, not having a great day and decided to take it out on the helpful Dr. Dickinson. But really, what followed after that comment of hers was unique. When I last checked, there were fifteen comments after that and 12 of those ripped Jackie apart for disregarding the scientific and evolutionary importance of this discovery and confusing scientific research fund allocation with rising costs of living and US foreign policy. The message seemed to be - leave the scientists alone!
But, Jackie is not an isolated phenomenon. I have lost count of the people who have expressed displeasure at the so-called ‘useless research’ of scientists, especially that in the field of biological sciences. In India, we even have heads of state lecturing research institutions to pursue more of ‘applied research’. Having started my career as a biologist with behavioural research on wild primates, I know how difficult it was to make people understand the significance of concepts such as cognition, theory of mind, deception, and the evolution of intelligence in primates. The general response would be on the lines of “ What? Is that ALL you do? Watch monkeys all day? And you get paid for this?!”. This was the cue for me to produce one of my earnest smiles and attempt to launch into an explanation of the importance of understanding our ancestors behaviour to gain a better understanding of the complexities of how humans evolved to become the most intelligent species on this planet. And the most petulant. But, they were long gone.

4 comments:

Abhishek said...

damn! my reaction was same as Jackie's when I first read this!

But I understand that it is difficult to make others (idiots like me!) understand the significance of your job.

But seriously I believe watching monkeys is better than watching ballet of flies!

Dawgmatix said...

Hey abhishek,
Thanks for your comments. Yeah, scientists aren't usually very good communicators with the public and thus, the importance and the applicability of any research work doesnt reach people like you from the 'horses mouth'. Rather it has to go through such catchy magazine headlines such as '..researchers crack the case of why flies are so hard to swat..'. The recent public outrage over the 9 Billion US dollars that went into the CERN Big Bang experiment is another example. The 9 billion was all the media could talk about, and not about what the experiment would achieve. Phew.. wonder if things will ever change!

Itti Bali said...

Hey Roy, really enjoyed the read. But it kind of ended very suddenly, I feel!!
I loved Jackie's response and I also sympathize with her. As we do know, there are two sides of the coin. At times I too get the feeling that a lot of those precious research dollars get spent on crappy stuff, especially when it comes to 'interdisciplinary' work it is a big party :(

Dawgmatix said...

Itti! Now don't get me started on the ID thing :)
Glad you liked the post, and about the abruptness, well that was a bit like how I felt when people would abruptly leave when I started to explain primate intelligence and cognition to the curious (nosy?) passer-by demanding to know why the hell I was hanging around with 'em bonnets :)
Look at it this way, maybe this was the study that MBK too read and maybe in someway contributed to the INGA strip.. now that isn't such a bad deal is it?