I haven’t been good at keeping up with the show, but one of my favorite podcasts over the last few years has been The Don’t Panic Geocast. The final segment of each show is a segment called Fun Paper Friday where the hosts discuss an unusual research study that they came across. The hosts are geologists, but they search the web and accept listener submissions for papers that are unusual in terms of what they study, the conclusions they reach, or have some sort of fun and interesting findings. I once submitted a paper that they reviewed which demonstrated that physicians who use bigger words are seen as less smart and less competent than physicians who use simpler vocabulary when talking to patients. But one of my favorite fun papers from the show, one I always seem to find a way to bring up in random conversations, has to do with blunt force trauma and beer bottles. A few years back a study was published in an emergency medicine journal which showed that more severe blunt force trauma could be inflicted by an empty beer bottle relative to a full beer bottle. The full bottle tended to shatter on impact, so while heavier, the force of the impact was dissipated in the shattering glass. An empty bottle is lighter, but less likely to shatter, meaning more force is transmitted to the body being struck by the bottle.
This study is funny, a bit morbid, and seems totally useless from the outside. It is easy to think, especially if you work a busy, demanding, and difficult job, that it was a waste of money for someone to take a bunch of beer bottles and hit a dead pig with them while measuring the force of the impact. “Someone seriously got paid to do that study?” is a common response I have gotten from telling people about this study or similar studies that might make their way to a Fun Paper Friday segment.
But the answer is yes, and the research was published in a respectable journal because there are actually important implications for fields of forensics and emergency medicine. The hosts jokingly remarked that the next time you are in a bar fight this paper will help you, but the reality is that it really might help someone better address a wound in an emergency room or better identify a murder weapon at a crime scene. The science was a little goofy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Additionally, the paper had some important structural mechanics and fluid dynamics considerations. How does a vessel react to an impact when it is full of fluid versus when it is empty is an important consideration in shipping industries, whether we are shipping soda, gasoline, or water on a space shuttle.
Science funding, even for science that is funny and a little strange, is very important because it is science, with a foundation in basic research, which has fueled the advances in human living standards over time. In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “banks and governments print money, but ultimately, it is the scientists who foot the bill.”
Sometimes we know where the big scientific breakthroughs will come from. Anyone who was working on vaccines in the last two years knew their research was vital for human lives across the globe. Anyone working in lithium battery technology is aware that their research is going to be very important for our future. But there is a lot of science that is crucially important that we don’t recognize as important as it is. It isn’t obvious how the person researching a fungus in the Amazon could have a major impact on the world, but perhaps a discovery about that fungus could lead to new antibiotics or new mechanisms for developing vaccines. It is not clear how someone researching fluid dynamics in kitchen sponges is really going to make a difference in the world, but perhaps their findings unlock something that contributes to the design and development of ion channels in lithium batteries.
Basic research can seem funny, but it sets a general foundation for the important work that goes into our breakthrough advances. And it is the breakthrough advances which change the world, allow us to communicate faster, improve our living standards, and allow us to do more with fewer resources. Scientists push the world ahead, footing the bill for the governments, bankers, and economies of the world.