The science story that has it all

Some scientific stories – think of Watson and Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA – are so electrifying that you instantly realize they’re bound for a Nobel prize or some other lofty pinnacle of greatness. This wasn’t one of them. My first impression was that it was free-falling rapidly in the other direction. If nobody has put it up it for an IgNobel yet, you may consider this article an official nomination.

It’s one of those quirky little pieces that make you think, “Wow, you can obtain funding for anything if it’s crazy enough,” or “The guy who wrote this grant must be a genius; let’s hire him,” or “There are waaay too many people getting PhDs these days.” But then you bite into it, the way you might try a hamburger made of soybeans, just to please your girlfriend, and you realize that it’s the gift that keeps on giving, if only in the form of several days of gastrointestinal distress.

I’m speaking, of course, of the invention of 3D eyeglasses for praying mantises. If you haven’t seen the pictures, visit this site and prepare not to get much work done for the next few hours.

The project is the work of Jenny Read, from the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University. The story issued by their press office doesn’t mention publication in a peer-reviewed journal, but it does say that the group received £1 million pounds from a certain Trust, so who cares? (I’m not naming the Trust until I’ve sent them five grant applications that I’ve been hanging onto, waiting for just the right funding body; I found the story, so I have the right to a head start.) In case you were wondering, £1 million pounds amounts to 1.23 million Euros at today’s rate of exchange.
Besides, who cares about getting a paper published when your work produces a video that will go instantly viral? Or maybe the lab was about to be scooped, and had to get the story out there.

I will return to the fascinating scientific aspects of this story, and its wonderful potential for industrial applications, but first let me say that this is obviously one of those projects that started in a pub. They caught a praying mantis by trapping it in a beer glass; everybody gathered around, and somebody said, “Hey, I bet to that bug, we look like we’re on a huge IMAX screen.”

A lot of British studies, particularly from psychological research, start in a pub and spend millions proving things we already know. Remember the classic paper proving that “Men and women who have consumed a moderate amount of alcohol find the faces of members of the opposite sex 25% more attractive than their sober counterparts.” That one got its support from the Universities of St. Andrews and Glasgow, which were probably closest to the pub.

This type of research is much harder than it sounds. It requires a particular skill set: you have to be able to do statistics, or at least count, while drunk. Then you have to remember to save all the soggy napkins and beer coasters that you’ve been using to gather statistical data. Finally, you must be able to read your own handwriting in the morning. It’s worth cultivating these talents as you work on your PhD; they’ll practically guarantee you a position in a lab in the UK.

But back to the praying mantis. One intriguing part of the story is that, as opposed to other insects, this species already has 3D vision. That’s because they have smooth eyes, as opposed to the eyes of certain dragonflies and moths, which are broken up into 30,000 or so bubble-like ommatidia. I guess that means they have 30,000D vision, which probably makes it hard to see anything at all. It’s a good thing such insects don’t drive cars, because they’d need a lot of mirrors – all of which would be labeled, “Objects in the mirror are fewer than they appear.” Now those are insects that could really use 3D glasses, just to watch normal TV, but it would take a farm of Cray supercomputers 12 billion years to work out the optics and design the things, and by that time the dragonflies would have evolved into helicopters.

How do you attach glasses to a praying mantis? With beeswax, of course. You grab a mantis, glue some glasses to its eyes, and stick it in front of a computer monitor which is showing The Fast and the Furious 17, or whatever number they’ve gotten to these days. If the mantis jumps back to avoid getting mashed on the grill of an oncoming car, you know that the glasses work. Another good piece of evidence is if the mantis tries to grab Paul Walker, mate with him, bite off his head, and eat him. I’ve known a few human women who respond the same way when they see Paul Walker in 3D.

One of the researchers involved in this project was a certain Dr. Vivek Nityananda; say it three times in a row, fast, and you really have to wonder if Newcastle is pulling our leg. He proclaims: “This is a really exciting project to be working on. So much is still waiting to be discovered in this system. If we find that the way mantises process 3D vision is very different to the way humans do it, then that could open up all kinds of possibilities to create much simpler algorithms for programming 3D vision into robots.”

I find this somewhat enthusiastic, but molecular biologists say such things, too; translated into their discipline it comes out: “3D glasses attached to the eyes of praying mantises present a promising new target for potential cancer therapies.” Particularly cancer of the eyeball, I suppose.

Dr. Vivek Nityananda doesn’t mention the fact that the research should also result in a lot more customers attending the local IMAX. You could fit 1,980,722,314,222 praying mantises into the theater, although it’s unclear how they will pay, unless the research subjects are getting a cut of that £1 million pounds.

For a writer there’s an even more compelling reason to be interested in this project. Garrison Keillor, the great American humorist, once said that a great story has five elements: a mystery, religion, money, sex, and family relationships. In a Nov. 8, 1997 broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion, he managed to capture them all in just twelve words, although it’s 14 if you expand the contractions:

“God,” said the banker’s daughter, “I’m pregnant. I wonder who’s the father?”

By extension, the perfect science story would have those elements, too, plus a bit of technology. That’s rare, but here we have them all, if you think about the mating practices of female praying mantises, usually with males from their own species, or perhaps with Paul Walker. Add this story’s elements of murder and cannibalism, and I foresee a book, a screenplay, and a feature film. I’m currently trying to buy the rights to the story. There’s still time to get in on this; just send me a mail and I’ll tell you where to send your contribution.

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