Is science that seems crazy crazy?

The news is awash today with the question: Is scientific research that makes people laugh bad or is it good, or what?

Shirley Wang, in the Wall Street Journal, explores the general question, under the headline “Science Wants to Know: Can Worms Swim?” It begins:

Can worms learn to swim? And why do some people see the face of Jesus on their toast?

Science is filled with research that can appear wacky or silly, obvious or trivial. Some topics elicit concern from both inside and outside the scientific community about whether they answer important questions or waste time and taxpayer money.

But sometimes the seemingly oddest studies add meaningfully to scientific knowledge, provoke a new direction for inquiry or spur a different way of understanding a phenomenon. Predicting what research will be significant can be difficult. It may not become apparent for years or even decades.

As the money from the government to support and conduct research gets tighter, scientists and funding agencies say it’s increasingly difficult to get any grants, particularly for high-risk research. More big grants go to researchers who have already tested out their methods and can show data suggesting their proposed experiments will work, they say….

Also today, Kelly Servick reports, in the journal Science, on a specific research program that achieved “Sorting cells through levitation” It begins:

What looks like a row of drifting gumdrops could hold a wealth of information for both clinical researchers and bench scientists. A team of bioengineers and geneticists has designed a device that can suspend a single living cell between magnets and measure its density based on how high it floats. Such measurements could be used to sort different types of cells—to distinguish cancerous cells from healthy ones, for example—or to measure how cells change when exposed to drugs.

A demonstration of the approach, published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is “pretty amazing stuff that could be a game changer for a lot of things if true,” says John Minna, a cancer biologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

Researchers have used magnets before to levitate whole creatures, such as living frogs—a bizarre demonstration that won its author an Ig Nobel Prize….

BONUS: Here’s detail, including video, on that cell levitation research.

BONUS: Here’s now-historical video of the Ig Nobel Prize-winning magnetically levitated frog: