David Hu was changing his infant son’s diaper when he got the idea for a study that eventually won him the Ig Nobel prize. No, not the Nobel Prize — the Ig Nobel prize, which bills itself as a reward for “achievements that make people laugh, then think.”
As male infants will do, his son urinated all over the front of Dr. Hu’s shirt, for a full 21 seconds. Yes, he counted off the time, because for him curiosity trumps irritation.
That was a long time for a small baby, he thought. How long did it take an adult to empty his bladder? He timed himself. Twenty-three seconds. “Wow, I thought, my son urinates like a real man already.”
He recounts all of this without a trace of embarrassment, in person and in “How to Walk on Water and Climb up Walls: Animal Movements and the Robotics of the Future,” just published, in which he describes both the silliness and profundity of his brand of research.
No one who knows Dr. Hu, 39, would be surprised by this story. His family, friends, the animals around him — all inspire research questions.
His wife, Jia Fan, is a marketing researcher and senior data scientist at U.P.S. When they met, she had a dog, and he became intrigued by how it shook itself dry. So he set out to understand that process.
Now, he and his son and daughter sometimes bring home some sort of dead animal from a walk or a run. The roadkill goes into the freezer, where he used to keep frozen rats for his several snakes. (The legless lizard ate dog food). “My first reaction is not, oh, it’s gross. It’s ‘Do we have space in our freezer,’” Dr. Fan said.
He also saves earwax and teeth from his children, and lice and lice eggs from the inevitable schoolchild hair infestations. “We have separate vials for lice and lice eggs,” he pointed out.
“I would describe him as an iconoclast,” Dr. Fan said, laughing. “He doesn’t follow the social norms.”
He does, however, follow in the footsteps of his father, a chemist who also loved collecting dead things. Once, on a family camping trip, his father brought home a road-killed deer that he sneaked into the garage under cover of night.
The butchering, a first time event for everyone in the family, he wrote once in a father’s day essay for his dad, “was an intense learning and sensory experience. There were a lot of organs in an animal, I learned.”
His own curiosity has led him to investigations of eyelashes and fire ants, water striders and horse tails, frog tongues and snakes.
Dr. Hu is a mathematician in the Georgia Tech engineering department who studies animals. His seemingly oddball work has drawn both the ire of grandstanding senators and the full-throated support of at least one person in charge of awarding grants from that bastion of frivolity, the United States Army.
Long before his role in the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearing, Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, put three of Dr. Hu’s research projects on a list of the 20 most wasteful federally funded scientific studies. The television show, “Fox and Friends,” featured Sen. Flake’s critique.
Naturally, Dr. Hu made the attack on his work the basis for a TEDx talk at Emory University, in which he took a bow for being “the country’s most wasteful scientist” and went on to argue that Sen. Flake completely misunderstood the nature of basic science.
Dr. Hu was tickled to think that one scientist could be responsible for such supposed squandering of the public’s money. Neither he nor his supporters were deterred.
Among those supporters is Samuel C. Stanton, a program manager at the Army Research Office in Durham, N.C., which funded Dr. Hu’s research on whether fire ants were a fluid or a solid. (More on that and the urination findings later.)
Dr. Stanton does not share Dr. Hu’s flippant irreverence. He speaks earnestly of the areas of science to which he directs Army money, including “nonequilibrium information physics, embodied learning and control, and nonlinear waves and lattices.”
So he is completely serious when he describes Dr. Hu as a scientist of “profound courage and integrity” who “goes where his curiosity leads him.”
Dr. Hu has “an uncanny ability to identify and follow through on scientific questions that are hidden in plain sight,” Dr. Stanton said.
When it comes to physics, the Army and Dr. Hu have a deep affinity. They both operate at human scale in the world outside the lab, where conditions are often wet, muddy or otherwise difficult.
In understanding how physics operates in such conditions, Dr. Stanton explained, “the vagaries of the real world really come to play in an interesting way.”
Besides, Dr. Stanton said, the Army is not, as some people might imagine, always “looking for a widget or something to go on a tank.” It is interested in fundamental insights and original thinkers. And the strictures of the hunt for grants and tenure in science can sometimes act against creativity.
Sometimes, Dr. Stanton said, part of his job is convincing academic scientists “to lower their inhibitions.”
Needless to say, with Dr. Hu that’s not really been an issue.