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Nathan Hansen's column: The science of tricking bugs

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Science is a wonderful thing. Because of white-coated researchers in labs and computer scientists hunched over laptops we have traveled to space, developed a vaccine for polio and built robots that play soccer. Presumably, somebody somewhere is working on an American robot that does nothing but tell everyone how stupid it thinks soccer is.

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Science gave us the Internet, an enormously powerful tool for sharing and discovering information. We responded by making sure we are never more than a few clicks away from listening to the theme song from 1980s situational comedy Growing Pains.

Don’t tell me that’s not progress.

Scientists spend a lot of time asking themselves why things are the way they are. But they also spend a lot of time asking, “Why not?”

Why inject LSD into an elephant, as researchers in Oklahoma City did in 1962? Well, why not? There probably wasn’t much good on TV that year, anyway.

Why do like a group of Albany Medical College researchers once did and try to figure out what kind of music rats like when they are high on cocaine? I mean, besides the obvious appeal of explaining to your friends how you spent your day?

Or, imagine being the Newcastle University who went into the lab one day recently and suggested to his colleagues that he would like to put tiny pairs of 3D glasses onto praying mantises. That’s not the kind of thing you do if you work in a field where people are afraid to do things that sound a little crazy.

There are apparently some scientific reasons for this particular experiment. The praying mantis is the only invertebrate known to see in three dimensions. By using beeswax to secure 3D glasses to their little bug faces, researchers hope to get some insight into how our own 3D vision evolved. That information might someday help develop 3D-capable sensors in the robots that will inevitably turn on us and overthrow the human civilization.

Plus, the oversized shades totally make them look like tiny little Top Gun pilots. It’s adorable.

Once the mantises are fitted with their shades they are shown 3D images on a computer screen. Scientists try to fool the mantis into misjudging depth, either because that tells them something important or because they feel like tough guys for tricking a bug.

I’m pretty sure there’s a lab assistant who’s only job is to wait for a mistake, then point and laugh until the mantis cries its glasses off.

Stupid, exoskeleton-having dummy.

I’d like to think these scientists will eventually work up to showing the mantises Avatar. Maybe we can develop the world’s itty bittiest film critics.

“I gave it two claws down. Then I bit the director’s head off.”

I don’t know what will come of this particular bit of research. That’s the way it is with science. Some days you wake up and say, “I’m going to try to cure cancer!” Other days you just want to stick things to a bug’s face and see what happens.

Maybe this will lead to the development of smart robot soldiers on the battlefield. Maybe it will just make future robot soccer players really super good.

It’s impossible to say, really. But I know where you can find some coked-up rats that would probably be really excited to find out.

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