Science a waste of money? “Waste book” misses the big picture

Originally posted on the Duke Research Blog:

Duke biologist Sheila Patek explains the big picture behind a recent study on sparring mantis shrimp. Photograph by Roy Caldwell.

Duke biologist Sheila Patek explains the big picture behind a recent study on sparring mantis shrimp. Photograph by Roy Caldwell.

Sheep in microgravity. An experiment involving a monkey in a hamster ball on treadmill. These are among more than 100 descriptions of what Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, deems wasteful federal spending in “Wastebook: The Farce Awakens,” to be released on Tuesday, Dec. 8. The latest in a series launched by retired Senator Tom Coburn, each “Wastebook” targets a range of federally-funded projects, many of them science-related, which the authors declare a waste of taxpayers’ money.

But what do the researchers behind these projects have to say? We asked Duke biologist Sheila Patek, whose work on fighting mantis shrimp was singled out in Flake’s latest report, to tell us her side of the story:

“What do we stand to learn from basic research on mantis shrimp? It turns out, a lot,” Patek said.

“First, mantis shrimp strike with weapons operating at the same acceleration as a bullet in the muzzle of a gun, yet they achieve high performance without explosive materials. They use a system based on muscles, springs and latches and neutralize their opponents with impact-resistant armor. This research helps us understand how animals survive when they have lethal weapons at their disposal but do not actually kill the opponent — something that could change the way we look at future defense systems,” Patek said.

“Second, these crustaceans have properties of extreme acceleration that are of great interest to military and manufacturing engineers. Mantis shrimp use a toothpick-sized hammer that can break snail shells in water that humans can only break with a larger hammer in air. Their small, lightweight hammer resists fracture over thousands of uses. Our research has already led to the development of novel engineered materials that resist impact fracture, based directly on mantis shrimp hammers,” Patek said.

“Third, mantis shrimp do something else that humans cannot: strike in water at the speed of cars on a major highway without causing cavitation, a phenomenon that occurs in systems with rapid motion (like propellers) where implosive bubbles emit heat, light and sound with energy sufficient to wear away steel. Naval engineers have been trying to solve this problem since the invention of the submarine. When we understand how mantis shrimp avoid cavitation during the rotation phase of their strikes while effectively using cavitation during their impact phase, the knowledge will undoubtedly improve the capabilities of ships, submarines, torpedoes and other machines,” Patek said.

“Research that helps us understand and apply the mechanics and evolutionary diversity of natural systems to create a better and safer society for all of us is a wise investment for this country.”