The Best Breakfast Science Study of 2016 Was Funded by the Department of Defense
You are always spilling your coffee because of science, OK?
What you eat for breakfast can kill you—or, at least, affect your health. I know this because of breakfast science. And though this line of inquiry isn't recognized as an official scientific discipline, it should be, because there seems to be a new study that makes some health claim about breakfast published every single day. In 2016 alone, I've learned that bacon can give you migraines, eating ice cream for breakfast might make you smarter, and whole milk might make your kid smarter but skipping breakfast is a risk factor for childhood obesity. Don't even get me started on the coffee studies. Drinking coffee might prevent dementia, though it might also give you a headache while also making you smarter somehow.
But my favorite breakfast study of this year wasn't actually published this year, though it did go viral thanks to Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, which is why I think it belongs in this week's round-up of breakfast bests. "Walking with coffee: why does it spill?" was published in the engineering journal Physical Review E in 2012, and it looks closely at the reasons why coffee spills when you walk. It also cost the U.S. government over $170,000.
Yes, the researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, received $172,283 in funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is perhaps best known for developing military technologies like long range anti-ship missiles and remote-controlled beetles. These are decidedly not breakfast-related, unless, of course, you like the smell of napalm in the morning.
Flake highlighted this "experimental study of the conditions under which coffee spills for various walking speeds and initial liquid levels in the cup" as a waste of government money in a report called Senator Jeff Flake Presents Twenty Questions: Government Studies That Will Leave You Scratching Your Head. He argued, "It’s time for DARPA to wake up and smell the coffee and put a lid on unnecessary studies."
To be fair, this study errs on the side of the absurd. The researchers Hans C. Mayer and Rouslan Krechetnikov rounded up some volunteers to walk in a straight line at different speeds while holding a cup of coffee, to see how spillage was affected by the amount of liquid in the cup, the speed of walking, and the size of the cup. As I wrote in June 2016, "The researchers then used photographic analysis to examine 'the walking with coffee problem,' and they found that, 'the motions of the human body, while seemingly regular, are quite complex and are coupled to a coffee cup and liquid therein, which makes it difficult to unravel the precise reasons behind coffee spilling.'" The big takeaway? Don't fill up your cup to the brim and focus on walking slowly to prevent spills.
This seems like common sense, but what I love about this study is that it's so much more than about spilled coffee, even though the premise an integral part of the appeal. It's really all about fluid dynamics, and as Lei Ren, a specialist in the biomechanics of walking at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom told Science in 2012, when the study was first published, "It reveals the sophisticated interplay between human body dynamics and the fluid mechanics of spilling coffee."
The applications of this research beyond the obvious—how not to spill coffee on yourself when you're in front of your boss or your office crush—might not be evident right now. But it's totally within the realm of possibility that there is some other DARPA-funded project that is using these seemingly meaningless findings as a foundation to further their understanding of the ways in which fluid mechanics are affected by human motion.
Even if there's not a bigger application to these findings, however, there should never be shame in spending money on scientific studies, especially since now more than ever, science is at risk.
Over the last eight years, President Barack Obama has made aggressive plays to increase funding for and appreciation of science across the board. He's committed the United States to going to Mars, in a very Kennedy-like move; opened the White House to high school students for an annual science, technology, engineering, and mathematics science fair; and in the most recent budget cycle, called for an 4 percent increase in funding for research and development across the federal government. The Obama administration has been kind to scientists, but that will likely all change come January 2017.
Scientists are worried about research in the age of Trump, and for good reason. America's soon-to-be president Donald Trump told Fox News this week, "Nobody really knows" if climate change is real. (It is real, for the record.) He has been described as "anti-science," even going as far as saying that the United States spends too much money on public school education.
So yes, this particular study is, admittedly, kind of stupid, because who cares exactly why coffee spills when you're walking? But that's not the point. The point is that there has been money available over the last eight years for scientists in our country to explore these questions, act on their instincts, and follow their curiosity. The immediate applications of this "Walking with coffee: why does it spill?" might not be groundbreaking, but these smaller advances need to be made in order to pave the way for bigger ones, like someday walking on Mars. You never know what research will lead to what outcomes, so shaming scientists for doing their jobs and cutting their funding isn't going to help anyone.