Monday, July 27, 2009

Mad Science Monday, 7/27/2009

If you've been reading this blog, you might have found yourself wondering, "What exactly makes science mad?" Even if you haven't, I have quite a bit recently. I've been reading papers, searching for things that are suitably mad, and nothing seems to be up to snuff. So, both to let you know my process and to work it out a bit for myself, I decided this week I'd present:

Meta Mad Science Monday: Defining Madness

There's one definite requirement for a paper to make the cut for Mad Science Monday: it has to clearly be science, not engineering. The researchers have to be testing a hypothesis using controlled experiments, not piloting new technology.

Beyond that stipulation, there are a lot of signs that a study might be mad. Here are some of them.

1) Use of Mad Engineering as a Research Tool

When I saw a study involving implanting lasers in rat's brains, I knew there was a strong possibility that I was reading about mad science. Frikkin' laser beams are often mad engineering, and implanting them in rat's brains (and using viruses to alter those rat brains) cements that definition. Robots also often fit this rule. If the researchers are using mad engineering, there's a good chance they're doing mad science.

2) Mergers of Man and Beast

A lot of biological research involves human genes, or cognates of human genes, being tested in non-human models. But when researchers implant human genes into mice to test something unquestionably human—speech, in this case—there's a good chance we're looking at mad science. That particular paper also has another defining characteristic of mad science, which is why it launched this project.

3) Mad Quotations from the Researchers

If I see a story about some research in which they say, for example, "We will speak to the mouse," I know there's a good chance I'm looking at mad science. If you can imagine lightning flashing as the researcher shouts the quote, it's probably something I need to write about.

4) Quantum Entanglement

Any paper about quantum entanglement is mad science. Some of them are too thick to boil down into something fun to write about, but they're still mad science. That shit is just weird.

5) Research Involving Fear, Pain, Etc.

If the subjects of the research have to be scared, or pain has to be inflicted upon them, or otherwise the research sounds like it's on questionable moral standing when I first hear about it (before, inevitably, reading about the very humane protocols used in the research), it's probably mad science. This even works if the subjects aren't human, but the research has potential human applications. That borders on the next requirement.

6) Research with Clear Mad Engineering Applications

Clear applications usually aren't present in my favorite research, but if they're mad applications, they can make me take notice. If the research is aimed at, say, finding the formula for taking over the world, that's probably mad science. Research on weather control, giant weapons, doomsday devices, etc would also qualify as mad science, but I have yet to find anything good in this arena.

Those are the criteria I use right now. Right now I have a Rule 5 and a potential Rule 1 on deck, but they both look like weak applications of those rules. If you notice anything else fitting these criteria, or notice a criterion I missed, let me know in the comments.


Die Anyway said...

Although not exactly "mad" science, the following item reminded me of your category 5.

(sorry about the ugly link but I can't ever remember the html syntax)
Anyway, I have volunteered for medical experiments in the past (college days) but it's hard to imagine people volunteering to be infected with malaria parasites. Yuck... even if you're pretty sure they can cure you of it afterwards.

Jon Harmon said...

Sweet, thanks! That one definitely seems mad-sciency to me :)

I was just trying earlier today to make links auto-convert. I can't believe Blogger doesn't do that... enough so that I think I'm missing something. I'll see what I can find at the same time that I'm working on the layout...