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Weird Science

Why is it that the really cool-sounding research–the stuff of comic books and science-fiction novels–comes out of the Department of Defense? Anyway, that’s the way it seems sometimes–apart, I suppose from some of the quantum weirdness physicists often study.

Here’s the latest example of what I mean, via a press release from DefenseLink:

The Army Research Office awarded a $4
million grant in mid-August to lay the scientific foundation it hopes
will someday enable soldiers in the field to communicate through a
deliberate thought process.

Elmar Schmeisser, ARO program
manager, described the revolutionary concept in terms of the way
today’s field soldiers communicate with radios. “You’ll press the
button on your harness, you’ll think, then you’ll throw the button
off,” he said.

Gone will be the microphone. Gone will be the
receiver. The message will go directly from the soldier’s head into a
computer programmed to decipher his brain waves, Schmeisser explained.

The result will be communication that’s silent, secure and free of background noise.

Perhaps there’s a serious point to be made here. America’s (indeed, the world’s) major science funding agencies insist they’re interested in transformative research, and I believe them. Yet, you rarely see program announcements from NSF or NIH that are quite this–well, exciting, in a popular-science sort of way. Is this an indication of a more ambitious scientific culture in the military establishment–or is it just a manifestation of a more authentic scientific culture at the mainstream funding agencies. Or is it something else?

2 comments on “Weird Science”

  1. Ric

    Excellent find Jim. And your point about looking for edge leading ideas is too. This level of direct guidance is probably helpful to folks wondering if their ideas are too out there.

  2. Kathy Barker

    If NIH and NSF had the kind of money and the lack of accountability that the DoD has, there would be more adventurous funding.
    Firstly- is this research project a good idea? Who would know? Are DoD research priorities debated publically? Are these grants subject to the same kind of accountability that NSF or NIH grants are? Of course not. Imagine the howls in Congress and the press if NSF funded this! Only Reagan’s SDI brought any kind of public scrutiny.
    The DoD has a discretionary budget of hundreds of billions of dollars, tens of billions for R&D. The United States Accountability Office has had major problems with unclear information from the DoD R&D budget requests (, but yet lack of oversight and clarity continues. As does funding.
    Yes, it would be great if more imaginative projects were funded. More funding for basic research through NIH and NSF, less for DoD would help this. I wonder how many good projects are being lost because DoD projects must be rationalized through the prism of war. Look at this proposal- really, is battleground communication really the end we are after should we be able to transmit thoughts with machines? (?!) I guess we can wait until it all trickles down……

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