Can we do good science frugally?
So, I went back to the sacred texts and price-checked. And here is my list of top 5 amazing scientific findings delivered on a shoe-string budgets. Of course a list of 5 entries cannot be comprehensive but it can be delightful. So read on!
1. Only a stick and some wit
2200 years ago, using only a stick and shadows, a man measured the circumference of earth to a whopping accuracy of 99.84%.
That man and our king of thrifty science is Eratosthenes of Cyrene.
Eratosthenes had heard that when the sun was overhead on the summer solstice, no shadows were cast in Alexandria. By measuring the shadows cast by a stick at noon on the summer solstice in Syene, he was able to calculate the angular distance between Alexandria and Syene.
By measuring the distance between the 2 cities, he estimated the earth’s circumference to be 40,000km (he was only off by only 30 km).
$$$ = a stick, a ruler and probably the first grad student stipend (some had to walk and measure the distance between the two cities)
2. The society of 8-year-old scientists
Blackawton, a village in England, boasts of not one but several 8 year old scientists, thanks to their enterprising teachers.
The 8-year-olds and their teacher decided to test if bumble-bees use colour or spatial information to decide where to forage from. They trained the bumblebees to visit circles coloured in with crayon and laden with sugar.
The sugar solution was in circles of specific colours in some cases and in circles of a certain position in some cases. The experiments are really well thought out and if you want to read the paper you can find it here.
$Cost of the experiment = few crayons, paper, sugar water and of course the bees themselves ( they are wild and can be found for free).
3. Four peas in a pod
The year was 1863. A monk was crossing peas and history was made.
Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, was a man with humble means. But like they say, humility breeds giants.
By diligently crossing pea plants for 6 years and observing the progeny, he figured out the basic laws of inheritance of traits. The laws of inheritance would later give birth to the field of genetics. Giants indeed.
It is even more elegant given the fact that we knew nothing about genes or DNA then.
$Cost of the experiment = #cost of rearing 10,000 pea sapling in the 1800s. Bonus benefit: you don’t have to buy peas for 6 years.
4. T-shirt test
What can 37 teenagers accomplish when they put their mind to it.
They can crack the odor code.
37 students decided to check if one could recognize gender and owner of an odor, whether self or kin generated, from odors alone. But it did come with huge sacrifice, at an age when the brain craves individuality. They agreed to wear the same clothes as 36 others for 3 days. They volunteered for rigorous controls.
For 3 days all of them slept in a new t-shirt and use the exact same hygiene products. Every morning the shirts had to be sealed in a poly bag and kept in the fridge for use the night after. At the end, the students were presented with 5 t-shirts where one of them was their own and one of their friends and they were asked to guess the owner of the T-shirt and rate the pleasantness of the odors.
Regardless of how nice or ugly the scent, students could identify their friends and themselves. Read how it was done here.
$Cost of the experiment = # teenager budget friendly.
5. What does the language I speak say about me?
We use language to communicate, as a tool to express ourselves.
First we make the tools, then the tools make the us.
Scientists have found that languages impact colour perception of their speakers and they discovered that in a very ingenuous way. Scientists showed a painting to groups of native English speakers and native Russian speakers and asked them a simple question: how many types of blues do you see?
Speakers of Russian, a language that has the distinct terms golubyj (for light blue) and synij (for dark blue) frequently distinguished different types of blues better than the English speakers.
English speakers were probably disadvantaged because English does not (in general) have distinct terms for blue, instead it uses modifier like light and dark before blue. Read how it was done here.
$Cost of the experiment = #A computer and an image editing software (One could use their kid’s drawings or cheap reprints of famous paintings and open source software like inkscape to cut costs further.)
This was an exciting exercise in humility for me and frankly I learnt a lot. Quoting the wonderful paper of Blackawton bees “the process of science is little different from the deeply resonant, natural processes of play.” Money cannot limit us, only our imaginations can. So what do you think? Leave a comment below and let me know!
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