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Oddball Science

March 19, 2014

At a conference at Columbia University in 1958, Nobel Prize winning physicist, Niels Bohr (1885-1962), told another Nobel laureate, Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958), "We are all agreed that your theory is crazy. The question that divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct." This quotation was documented by mathematical physicist, Freeman Dyson.[1]

Novel scientific ideas are initially perceived as crazy, since everyone's mindset is on "normal science," and the best new ideas are always paradigm changing. The popular conception of a brilliant scientist is a white-coated oddball doing oddball things. James Watson, as one example, has proudly cultivated the boffin image.

1978 photo of NASA scientist, Barbara S. Askins.

Lab coats of my generation.

1978 photo of NASA scientist, Barbara S. Askins.

Askins invented a method of restoring photographic and X-ray negatives.[2]

(NASA image via Wikimedia Commons.)

The etymology of the word, "oddball," is not established. Since the word seemed to appear just after World War II, there's a suggestion that it was aviator slang for something amiss. In the days before electronic instrumentation, aircraft were equipped with a crude inclinometer consisting of a ball in a curved glass tube filled with a damping liquid. The ball would remain centered during level flight; and, if it wasn't centered, an "odd ball," there might be a problem.

My own etymological theory is that the concept goes back millennia to the time when votes were cast by putting white or black balls in a vessel. A tie-breaker would be the "odd ball," since only an odd number of votes will ensure a definitive outcome. That's one reason why the Supreme Court of the United States, known in the Internet age as SCOTUS, has nine members.

Some non-scientists ridicule oddball scientific studies, perhaps because they don't understand the necessity of oddball science. In particular, US Senator, William Proxmire, launched attacks on oddball science in 1975 when he initiated his Golden Fleece Award to highlight what he considered to be wasteful government spending.

The National Science Foundation received some Golden Fleece Awards, as did NASA for its support of SETI (the Search for extraterrestrial intelligence). There has been no US government funding of SETI since the mid-1990s, probably as a consequence of the Golden Fleece Award. To the common man, it makes much more sense to fund better cellphone video than eavesdropping on little green men, or larger grey men.

As the saying goes, "The proof of the pudding is in the eating," and oddball science has generated quite a few useful results. Patricia L. R. Brennan, Duncan J. Irschick, Norman Johnson and R. Craig Albertson of the University of Massachusetts Amherst have just published an article in BioScience entitled, "Oddball Science: Why Studies of Unusual Evolutionary Phenomena Are Crucial."[3] The article argues the principle that "innovations often arise from unlikely sources."[3-4]

Since the authors are biologists, the article's emphasis is on biological research. First author of the article, Patricia L. R. Brennan, does research on duck genitalia.[5] This research has been criticized as a waste of government money, as have other oddball studies on snail sex, shrimp running on a treadmill, and robotic squirrels.[3-4] There's a mindset that the only research projects that should be funded are those with a foreseeable benefit.[3] However, as all scientists know, innovation does not proceed in a linear fashion from planned research.[3]

One example that the authors cite, from their own university, is research on the ability of the gecko to walk up walls and across ceilings. This ability arises from the structure of the lizard's toe pads, which are covered with soft hairs that conform to surfaces to enable strong adhesion.[3] This fundamental research on the gecko has allowed development of Geckskin, a reusable, glue-free adhesive pad capable of holding heavy weights on smooth surfaces.[4]

Gecko toepad

Gecko toepads.

The gecko is an advertising icon of the insurance company, GEICO. Lizards hanging upside-down from ceilings should have insurance.

(University of Massachusetts Amherst image.)

The Amherst authors state that there are more than 2,000 technology innovations inspired by basic research in biology, such as highly efficient solar panels, body armor inspired by mantis shrimp exoskeleton, and a diabetes drug based on studies of Gila monster venom.[3-4] There is also the example of the enzyme, Taq polymerase, discovered in thermophilic bacteria in Yellowstone National Park, and the basis for the polymerase chain reaction (PCR).[4]

As a counterpoise to the Golden Fleece Award, the Golden Goose Award Figure caption

(Image by Milo Winter from Aesop for Children, Project Gutenberg etext 19994, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Even experienced physicists did not believe that a maser was possible, but Townes persisted. The Amherst authors write,
"Scientific innovations arise from a mix of curiosity, creativity, and knowledge, and the connection between basic and applied science is a network of knowledge that builds over time to generate life-changing ideas."[3]


  1. Gregory Foster, "Freeman Dyson on innovation in physics," February 21, 2010.
  2. Barbara S. Askins, "Method of obtaining intensified image from developed photographic films and plates," US Patent No. 4,101,780, July 18, 1978.
  3. Patricia L. R. Brennan, Duncan J. Irschick, Norman Johnson and R. Craig Albertson, "Oddball Science: Why Studies of Unusual Evolutionary Phenomena Are Crucial," Bioscience, Advance Article (February 6, 2014), DOI: 10.1093/biosci/bit039.
  4. Janet Lathrop, "'Oddball Science' Has Proven Worth, Say UMass Amherst Biologists," University of Massachusetts Amherst Press Release, February 27, 2014.
  5. Patricia Brennan, "Why I study duck genitalia, Slate, April 2, 2013.
  6. Emily Underwood, "First Golden Goose Awards honor ideas that hatched unexpectedly," Science Insider, September 10, 2012.

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