Science Fun of the Week
(October 7th, 2016) Get ready for your weekly dose of science fun. Today: A conversation with the newly-minted Ig Nobel laureate, Thomas Thwaites, aka Goat Man.
Have you ever felt envious of your pet, lazily sleeping on the sofa all day, while you have to go to work? This is exactly what instigated British designer Thomas Thwaites to become a goat for 5 days. Thwaites talks to Lab Times about how difficult - and at times disgusting - this transformation really was!
Thwaites spent a full year working on a set of prosthetic limbs allowing him to become quadrupedal. Set on becoming a herbivore, the designer also concocted an artificial rumen, consisting of a camping stove and a pressure cooker, to break down cellulose and allowing him to eat grass. His book “Goat Man: How I took a holiday from being human” has recently earned Thwaites an Ig Nobel Prize in Biology for its mixture of science and technology in an attempt to escape the troubles of being human.
How did you develop the idea of becoming a goat?
I think it's a recurrence of a thought that is quite common when you're little. 'Wouldn't it be nice if I didn't have to go to school and be the family cat lying on the sofa?' I suppose it was a childish thought that remained in my adult life.
Why a goat? Why not a cat or a dog?
I actually was first intending to become an elephant. This was mainly because elephants also have short necks. I wanted to be able to graze, I wanted to be an herbivore. Horses, for example, have long necks for their mouth to reach the ground, but elephants have short necks. I could imagine ways of extending my limbs, but I couldn't imagine a way to extend my neck.
While I was doing research, I started to get the impression that elephants have their own problems. Maybe they're one of the few species that understand their own mortality. I had this idea of wanting to escape the problems of being human by becoming another animal; and in this sense, an elephant is almost too human. After consulting with an expert in human/animal transformation, I was advised to become a goat.
How long did it take you to develop your suit?
I was doing the project for about a year, including a few failed attempts.
The suit wasn't just about the prosthetic limbs, but you also wanted to include a rumen - how did you try to become a fully functional ruminant?
I visited a lab in Aberystwyth University (UK), where they use artificial rumens in their research. I looked at what they were doing and then I made a silicone sac which I was going to strap to my torso. The idea was that I would keep it at my body temperature and, inside this bag, I would put a sample of fluid from a goat's rumen. I was planning to feed off grass fermenting in this bag, which I would eat through another tube.
That was the plan, but when they realised what I was actually planning to do, researchers at Aberystwyth University said it wouldn't be just a matter of giving myself food poisoning, but potentially contracting some serious long-term gut infection. I also got some purified cellulase, but I couldn't use that either, because of health and safety policies.
In the end, I had to pressure cook everything. I would eat grass and then spit and pressure cook the chewed grass to try and crack the cellulose and get some sugar I could actually digest.
Then, there you were in the Alps surrounded by goats. How did you feel at that moment?
It was quite exhilarating. I was with the herd and we were all together. The goats were so much better than me at being goats. It was extremely difficult and quite painful to walk on my prosthetic legs. Going uphill was fine, but going downhill was hard.
Do you think the goats accepted you?
I don't know if all the goats accepted me, but I had a goat allied. One particular goat stayed closer than the others. Maybe I made a goat friend!
You recently received the Ig Nobel prize for biology. How did you feel when you found out about this award?
I was extremely happy. A couple of people had never heard of it, and a couple of people thought it was amazing. I regard the Ig Nobel with a certain amount of cachet. I was very honoured to be given this prize.
Your background is in design, and not in science. Do you think you would have done things differently if you were a scientist?
Possibly, if I had been more aware. I went to speak with biologist John Hutchinson, at the Royal Veterinary College, and he was trying to impress on me the fact that [becoming a goat] wouldn't be a very easy thing to do. Also, the guys at Aberystwyth University said it wouldn't be an easy thing to make an artificial rumen. I'm sure I would have done it differently, if I was a scientist. Or maybe I wouldn't have done it at all.
For me, it was a way to access all this fascinating research which is going on in universities. It was a way to talk to people about their career and life's work.
Would you like to repeat the experience or have you had enough of being a goat?
Maybe I will. I slightly improved my prosthetic limbs, so I think I would quite like to go back and do it again.
Interview: Alex Reis
Photo: www.publicdomainpictures.net/George Hodan; Tim Bowditch (www.thomasthwaites.com)