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Saturday, March 29, 2008

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Research on some research


Most of my Stateside friends and family have knowledge of Japan only as deep as what they see on TV. Which means they think I live my life in a "dizzified" world of ninja, yakuza and robots.

But for those that read, the impressions can be even wilder. For have you read the news about Japan lately? I mean the "research" news — those tantalizing tidbits that pop up on Internet news sites.

Item: Scholars at the University of Tokyo discover drinking makes you sorrowful. Not that they did this sobering research themselves. No, their conclusion comes after an intense examination of inebriated mice.

Item: Others at the same University of Tokyo have created mutant mice that have no fear of cats. These mice no longer smell cats as predators. Too bad the cats can still smell them as lunch.

Item: At Kyushu University, researchers have discovered that eating yogurt will help you retain your teeth longer. I envision that they learned this by spooning yogurt to mice.

Item: Scientists at Japan's National Institute of Agrobiological Sciences have figured out how swallowtail caterpillars disguise themselves as bird poop. This of course has clear implications for the military and camouflage.

Item: NTT Docomo is developing a new cell phone that will tell you when your breath is bad. Next in line is perhaps a phone to say you're fat and ugly.

Item: Suntory, Ltd. announces plans to sell blue roses, first developed in 2004 . . . although some might credit Tennessee Williams in "The Glass Menagerie" in 1945. Not so, oddly enough. Suntory also makes whiskey, the drinking of which can result in a sorrowful mood, perfect for a blue rose. I suspect this was all worked out with tipsy mice.

Item: Japanese scientists — this time with cohorts from New Zealand — have created onions that fail to make you cry when cut. Now if they can only make noodles that refuse to be slurped.

Item: NHK reports scientists have invented a wasabi spray that can awaken the hearing-impaired during emergencies, when other alarms might not. Personally, I would not wake up for wasabi. Pizza, yes. Brownies, sure. Yogurt? Well, why not? I can escape fire and have healthier teeth at the same time.

Just how has Japan come to corner the market on oddball research? Isn't this the cyber center of the modern world? Why aren't we reading about nuclear fission made from mikan or machines that zap you to work by e-mail rather than by train ?

One friend offers this threadbare theory: Japanese researchers are too locked into the vision of their older colleagues, few of whom will risk their status by sticking their necks out. Younger scholars dare not try anything significant, and thus rather than earth-changing, big-scale progress, we end up with small-scale, Internet news bites.

"So what?" says my wife. "I like to see my country's name in print. It makes me feel proud. Japan is clearly on the cutting edge." My question is: On the cutting edge of what? Absurdity?

But my bigger question is why doesn't Japan dominate the Ig Noble Awards — those Nobel Prize parodies handed out at Harvard each year by the Annals of Improbable Research magazine. One would guess Japan would rule here the way the Russians have ruled in chess.

Yet Japan has won barely a dozen Ig Nobles since the prizes began 16 years ago, a modest amount but still almost twice the number of Japan's genuine Nobels. And most of the Ig Nobles are genuine lulus.

Like the 1995 award in psychology, in which Keio University researchers taught pigeons to distinguish between the works of Monet and Picasso. (Better than a fair share of Americans can do, I'm sure.)

Or the 1997 prize in biology for the Kansai Medical University of Osaka, in which researchers measured people's brain waves while they chewed different flavored gum — investigations so encompassing they were conducted together with researchers in Switzerland and Prague.

Or the 1999 award in biology, won by the Safety Detective Agency in Osaka for the invention of a spray to check a husband's underwear for signs of infidelity.

Or the 2005 award in nutrition to Dr. Yoshiro Nakamatsu, who photographed his every single meal for 34 years and then shared their nutritional analysis with the world.

Or the 2007 award in chemistry to scientist Mayu Yamamoto, who somehow succeeded in extracting vanilla flavoring from cow dung. One wonders what she could do with other animals.

One also wonders about future such studies. What will come next? Cow dung drawn from vanilla flavoring? Or pigeons that can distinguish between bird poop and caterpillars?

It may be science, but it's still fairly unbelievable. Ninja, yakuza and robots are somehow easier to live with.



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