Re­searcher stud­ies odd­i­ties of an­i­mal move­ment

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY JAMES GOR­MAN

David Hu was chang­ing his in­fant son’s di­a­per when he got the idea for a study that even­tu­ally won him the Ig No­bel prize. No, not the No­bel Prize – the Ig No­bel prize, which bills it­self as a re­ward for “achieve­ments that make peo­ple laugh, then think.”

As male in­fants will do, his son uri­nated all over the front of Hu’s shirt, for a full 21 sec­onds. Yes, he counted off the time, be­cause for him cu­rios­ity trumps ir­ri­ta­tion.

That was a long time for a small baby, he thought. How long did it take an adult to empty his blad­der? He timed him­self. Twenty-three sec­onds. “Wow, I thought, my son uri­nates like a real man al­ready.”

He re­counts all of this with­out a trace of em­bar­rass­ment, in per­son and in “How to Walk on Wa­ter and Climb up Walls: An­i­mal Move­ments and the Ro­bot­ics of the Fu­ture,” just pub­lished, in which he de­scribes both the silli­ness and pro­fun­dity of his brand of re­search.

No one who knows Hu, 39, would be sur­prised by this story. His fam­ily, friends, the an­i­mals around him – all in­spire re­search ques­tions.

His wife, Jia Fan, is a mar­ket­ing re­searcher and se­nior data sci­en­tist at UPS. When they met, she had a dog, and he be­came in­trigued by how it shook it­self dry. So he set out to un­der­stand that process.

Now, he and his son and daugh­ter some­times bring home some sort of dead an­i­mal from a walk or a run. The road­kill goes into the freezer, where he used to keep frozen rats for his sev­eral snakes. (The leg­less lizard ate dog food.)

“My first re­ac­tion is not, oh, it’s gross. It’s ‘Do we have space in our freezer?’” Fan said.

He also saves ear­wax and teeth from his chil­dren, and lice and lice eggs from the in­evitable school­child hair in­fes­ta­tions.

“We have sep­a­rate vials for lice and lice eggs,” he pointed out.

“I would de­scribe him as an icon­o­clast,” Fan said, laugh­ing. “He doesn’t fol­low the so­cial norms.”

Hu is a math­e­mati­cian in the Ge­or­gia Tech en­gi­neer­ing de­part­ment who stud­ies an­i­mals. His seem­ingly odd­ball work has drawn both the ire of grand­stand­ing se­na­tors and the full-throated sup­port of at least one per­son in charge of award­ing grants from that bas­tion of fri­vol­ity, the U.S. Army.

Long be­fore his role in the Brett Ka­vanaugh con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing, Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., put three of Hu’s re­search pro­jects on a list of the 20 most waste­ful fed­er­ally funded sci­en­tific stud­ies. The tele­vi­sion show “Fox and Friends” fea­tured Flake’s cri­tique.

Nat­u­rally, Hu made the at­tack on his work the ba­sis for a TEDx talk at Emory Univer­sity, in which he took a bow for be­ing “the coun­try’s most waste­ful sci­en­tist” and went on to ar­gue that Flake com­pletely mis­un­der­stood the na­ture of ba­sic science.

Hu was tick­led to think that one sci­en­tist could be re­spon­si­ble for such sup­posed squan­der­ing of the pub­lic’s money. Nei­ther he nor his sup­port­ers were de­terred.

Among those sup­port­ers is Sa­muel C. Stan­ton, a pro­gram man­ager at the Army Re­search Of­fice in Durham, which funded Hu’s re­search on whether fire ants were a fluid or a solid.

Stan­ton does not share Hu’s flip­pant ir­rev­er­ence. He speaks earnestly of the ar­eas of science to which he di­rects Army money, in­clud­ing “nonequi­lib­rium in­for­ma­tion physics, em­bod­ied learn­ing and con­trol, and non­lin­ear waves and lat­tices.”

So he is com­pletely se­ri­ous when he de­scribes Hu as a sci­en­tist of “pro­found courage and in­tegrity” who “goes where his cu­rios­ity leads him.”

Hu has “an un­canny abil­ity to iden­tify and fol­low through on sci­en­tific ques­tions that are hid­den in plain sight,” Stan­ton said.

“Ap­plied math­e­ma­ti­cians have al­ways been kind of play­ful,” Hu said re­cently while talk­ing about his aca­demic back­ground – al­though they are per­haps not quite as play­ful as he can be. A few years ago he did gym­nas­tic flips onto the stage of a Chi­nese game show that some­times show­cases sci­en­tists.

MELISSA GOLDEN NYT

David Hu, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing and bi­ol­ogy at Ge­or­gia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, shows off a snake at the Am­phib­ian Foun­da­tion in At­lanta this month. Hu’s un­fet­tered cu­rios­ity leads him to in­ves­ti­gate the physics at work in some very odd cor­ners of the nat­u­ral world.

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