Dave Barry

Night of the living roach

(This classic Dave Barry column was originally published July 9, 1995.)

Today I wish to present further evidence that the scientific community has completely lost its mind.

Exhibit A is an article that appeared recently on the front page of The New York Times (motto: ``Even We Don't Read The Whole Thing''). The article concerns a scientist named Dr. Raul J. Cano, who got hold of a bee that died 30 million years ago and was preserved in amber. Now here is the difference between a scientist and a sane lay person such as yourself: If YOU came across a bee that had been dead for 30 million years, your natural, common-sense reaction would be to stomp on it, just in case, then maybe use it as part of a prank involving a salad bar. But that was not Dr. Cano's scientific reaction. His reaction-and remember, this story comes from The New York Times, which never makes anything up-was to extract some really old dead germs from the bee's stomach AND BRING THEM BACK TO LIFE.

Yes. Does this make ANY sense to you? I mean, don't we already have ENOUGH live germs in this world, causing disease, B.O. and really implausible movies starring Dustin Hoffman? Do we lay persons not spend billions of dollars per year on antibiotics, Listerine, Right Guard and Ty-D-Bol for the specific purpose of KILLING germs?

According to The Times, the scientific community is all excited about Dr. Cano's revived bee-stomach germs. Apparently the scientific community has never seen ''The Mummy,'' ''Frankenstein,'' ''Night of the Living Dead Bacteria'' or any of the numerous other reputable motion pictures depicting the bad things that inevitably happen when some fool brings a dead organism back to life. You wait. One of these nights, Dr. Cano's germs are going to escape from their petri dishes and start creeping forward, zombie-like, with their little bacterial arms sticking straight out in front of them, and heaven help the laboratory security guard who stands in their way. (''What's wrong, Bob?'' ``I don't know! I have the weirdest feeling something's trying to eat my toe!'')

At this point you are saying, ``OK, so this one scientist is perhaps a few ice cubes short of a tray. But he's probably just an isolated example.''

You wish. I have here another New York Times story, sent in by many alert readers, concerning scientists who have figured out how to -- get ready -- GROW EXTRA EYES ON FLIES. Yes. The story states that, by messing around with genes, the scientists have produced flies with ''as many as 14 eyes apiece'' in various locations -- ``on their wings, on their legs, on the tips of their antennae.''

On behalf of normal humans everywhere, let me just say: Great! Just what we need! Flies that can see EVEN BETTER! As I write these words, I am unwillingly sharing my lunch with a regular, non-improved fly, which is having no trouble whatsoever seeing well enough to keep an eye on me while it walks around on my peanut-butter sandwich. Whenever I try to whap it, the fly instantly zooms out of reach, buzzing its wings to communicate, in fly language, the concept of ``neener neener.''

Not that it would do me any good to kill it; Dr. Raul J. Cano would probably just bring it back to life.

Speaking of insects, I have here a column from the spring issue of American Entomologist magazine, sent in by alert reader Jackie Simons and written by May Berenbaum, who discusses a University of Illinois entomology professor who has -- you are not going to believe this, but I'm going to tell you anyway -- ``pioneered the design and use of artificial limbs for cockroaches.''

Naturally, I had to call this professor, whose name is Fred Delcomyn. He freely admitted to me that he has, indeed, fitted cockroaches with tiny artificial limbs made from toothpicks. He's trying to figure out exactly how cockroaches move -- in stark contrast to us normal, non-scientist, sane people, who would like to figure out exactly how to make cockroaches STOP moving, so we could hit them with hammers.

But here's the truly alarming thing: Delcomyn, as part of his research, wants to BUILD A ROBOT COCKROACH. In fact, he has already built one that's a foot-and-a-half long (''not too big, compared to your Florida roaches,'' he noted, correctly). But his plan is to build a bigger one, a robot cockroach that will be FOUR FEET LONG.

When will these scientists ever learn? We know what's going to happen! We've seen this movie! Everything will be fine at first, with the robot roach doing exactly what the scientists want it to. But then one night, after the scientists have left the laboratory, there will be a lightning storm, and extra electricity will flow into the roach, and it will COME TO LIFE ON ITS OWN -- FrankenRoach! -- and escape and terrorize the community, smashing its way into supermarkets, skittering past terrified, screaming shoppers, seizing entire display racks of Hostess Twinkies.

Oh sure, eventually the Army will come up with a way to stop it, possibly by constructing a 50-foot-tall can of Raid. But do we really want to put ourselves through this? Why must scientists continue to mess with the natural order of things? Why do we need to create giant cockroaches? We already have the O.J. Simpson defense team! If you are as concerned about these issues as I am, I urge you to take action TODAY in the form of doubling your medication dosage. Also you are welcome to this sandwich.