Sunday, January 20, 2019 | ePaper

The strangest research topics

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Alyssa Walker :
Know you want to get that advanced degree, but not sure what you want to study? Looking for an area of specialization? Every wondered about the similarities between religious figures and the heroes and heroines of novels? From unicorns and birds to eggs, rats, and the human ability to swim, nearly anything is ripe for more research.
If any of these topics pique your research interest, you may have found your area of specialization.
Let's take a closer look at some of the world's strangest research topics:
The similarity between Harry Potter and Jesus Christ
Comparisons between the Boy-Who-Lived and the Christian savior are ripe for the plucking.
In 2011, an Oregonian studying for his PhD in Comparative Religious in at National Chen Kung University in Taiwan, Derek Murphy did just that. He wrote his dissertation on the similarities between Harry Potter and Jesus Christ. He published his book in 2011, Jesus Potter Harry Christ: The Fascinating Parallels Between Two of the World's Most Popular Literary Characters.
According to his Kickstarter page from 2011, he wanted "to present the best, most comprehensive and well-supported account of Christian symbolism, mythology and history ever written." It won 2011's Next Gen Indie Book Award for Best Religious Non-Fiction.
Do unicorns exist?
Haven't you ever wondered?
In 2012, Rachel Patterson, then 21 and a student at King's College London endeavored to find out.
She wrote "The Possibility of Unicorns: Kripke v Dummett," an analysis of two unicorn theorists. A 2012 article from the Guardian highlights a favorite passage from the conclusion: "There is a chance that we are mistaken: there may be unicorns. Furthermore, we can consider a world different to our own in some way, in which unicorns do exist. They are not a biological or metaphysical impossibility in this sense, and the images and descriptions we currently affix to the term 'unicorn' help us to imagine the possibility of such creatures existing in a different possible world. Therefore, there might be unicorns."
The artistic skills of pigeons
If you've never wondered about Harry Potter or unicorns, perhaps pigeons strike your fancy.
A 1995 dissertation, "Pigeons' discrimination of paintings by Monet and Picasso," came to us from Shigeru Watanabe, Junko Sakamoto and Masumi Wakita at Keio University in Japan.  They trained the birds to recognize pieces by Monet and Picasso and to discriminate between the two. Professor Watanabe said, "This research does not deal with advanced artistic judgments, but it shows that pigeons are able to acquire the ability to judge beauty similar to that of humans."
Do woodpeckers get headaches?
Good question, with all that pecking they do.
A 2007 paper by University of California Davis ophthalmologist Ivan Schwab found that woodpeckers have special traits that help them to avoid brain damage, detached eyes, and bleeding when they hammer their beaks into trees at the speed of 20 times a second, 12,000 times a day. According to a 2010 LiveScience article, Schwab said that the eyelid acts like a seatbelt for a woodpecker's eye. He published his studies in The British Journal of Ophthalmology.
Do humans swim slower in syrup than in water?
One would think so. Just to be sure though, in 2004, Edward Cussler led the experiment at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. He and his student, Brian Gettelfinger, a competitive swimmer thickened a swimming pool's water with guar gum to mimic the effects of syrup and asked 16 swimmers to swim in it, comparing their times to regular swimming.
What did they find? Doesn't matter. Humans swim just as fast in syrup. You can read about it in the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Journal.
What music genre do rats prefer?
Good question. In 2011, scientists at Albany Medical College published a paper on the music preferences of cocaine-infused rats. They played Beethoven and Miles Davis to rats with and without cocaine.
The verdict. Rats like silence best. As music goes without cocaine, they prefer Beethoven. With cocaine? Miles Davis, even after the cocaine was out of their systems.
How to partially unboil an egg
At some point, this could be a useful skill. A 2015 study in ChemBioChem explained how to unfold proteins and refold them in more useful ways. The scientists argue that they can salvage the sticky material that gets stuck in test tubes, and later apply the technology to the pharmaceutical and cheese-making industries.
(Alyssa Walker is a freelance writer, educator, and nonprofit consultant. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with her family).

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