When I was 17, my car, a '64 Pontiac Bonneville with a paint job almost as pimply as my own, developed a syncopated knock, a Walter Mitty pocketa-pocketa that should have worried me but didn’t. As any 17-year-old would, I didn’t pay any attention until the knock finally got so loud that I couldn’t hear the radio. That’s when I asked my dad to take a look.

He listened, his head cocked to one side. “Thrown rod,” was all he said.

“Is that bad?” I asked.

“We’ll have to rebuild the engine.”

“We?” Though I knew he could tear an engine down and put it back together blindfolded, I couldn’t change the oil without making a puddle in the middle of the driveway.  

“It ain’t rocket science,” he replied. “You’ll learn.”

Well, it might not have been rocket science, but there were moments when our garage looked like the blast zone of a rocket with an anti-automobile warhead. Parts were strewn everywhere. As I remember, I held a dozen or so left over screws and bolts in my hand when we finally got the engine put back together. I never figured out where they should have gone but didn’t. And that Pontiac ran just fine without them for several more years.

Since that experience, which confirmed my father’s conviction that I wasn’t destined for a career as a rocket scientist, I occasionally wonder what passes for science, any kind of science today. I wonder what people who are capable of feats of intellectual prestidigitation far beyond rebuilding a Pontiac Bonneville engine might be up to.

Three recent studies illustrate that whatever my dad thought rocket science was, it’s entirely possible that rocket science isn’t rocket science any more. Each of these studies garnered millions of dollars in federal grants in order to answer a burning scientific question, which loosely defined means a question that gives a scientist heartburn. 

Burning Scientific Question 1: Does cow flatulence contribute to global warming? More studies than I have room to recount have been conducted over the last few years to study whether cow flatulence might be contributing to global warming. With 1.5 billion cows in the world, this might not be as farfetched a problem as it sounds -- though in typical scientific (egghead) fashion, none of these studies indicate what we should do about it. (i.e. everyone complains about cow flatulence, but no one does anything about it.)

Anyone who has strolled through the cow barn at the stock show knows that this is a serious stuff. Somewhere in the back of my mind I can hear Dr. Evil plotting: “If I can just get all 1.5 billion cows to fart at the same moment . . ..” For real rocket scientists, the threat seems to be more mundane. In 2003 the government of New Zealand proposed a flatulence tax to offset the damage done by said cows. It’s somehow reassuring to know that there are other governments in the world that are as totally off their rocker as our own. 

Burning Scientific Question 2: Why do people fall in love? Now, this strikes me as a perfectly reasonable question. It only becomes silly-science when you start to listen to a scientist try to explain love. One scientist insists that love is a biochemical reaction that can be traced to dopamine, a chemical that apparently makes us act like dopes. Another scientist explains love as a biochemical addiction to lips. Of course, you would only come up with such explanation if you don’t believe in love in the first place. So, perhaps we can trace such ideas to the equation: scientist=nerd=unattractive to cheerleader. Or, no one loves me so love doesn’t exist. This argument is vaguely akin to “I’ve never seen God, ergo (a good scientific word if I ever heard one) God doesn’t exist.”

Burning Scientific Question 3: Why are dead cockroaches always found lying on their backs? Now, I have to admit, as scientific conundrums go, this one tweaks my own entirely unscientific curiosity. I’ve found the little critters laying on their back under the couch, in some corner of the living room, or even in the middle of the floor. What possible perverse sense of cockroach humor could have motivated said cockroach to decide with his last cockroach breath to roll over on his back? Was his intent to freak my wife out? That’s certainly the end result. Or, is there something more nefarious going on? Something that might have an affect on the ozone layer? Or even better, that our government can tax? Whatever it is, I’m sure someone is writing up a multi-million dollar study right now.