<img src = "https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/python2-800×533.jpg" alt = "John Cleese's famous silly walk from an episode from 1970 by Monty Pythons Flying Circus"/>
Enlarge /. John Cleese's famous silly walk from a 1970 episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus
One of the most famous sketches from Monty Python's Flying Circus shows John Cleese as a bureaucrat with a bowler hat at the fictional Ministry of Silly Walks. It's a classic of physical comedy right up there with the group's Dead Parrot sketch ("This parrot has stopped!") In terms of cultural meaning.
Two Dartmouth University scientists have conducted a gait analysis of the various silly walks on display and published their results in a new article in Gait and Posture. It is intended in part to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the sketch, but is also intended to draw attention to the need for an optimized peer review process for scholarships in the health sciences.
The two authors Erin Butler and Nathaniel Dominy are married and met 12 years ago in Stanford. (Butler was TA for a class in which Dominy gave a lecture on the development of bipedalism.) Dominy is a Monty Python fan. "So put together a Monty Python fan with a creative scientific mind and a gait analysis expert, and this paper is what you get," Butler said to Ars. Or, as they wrote in their work, "It is really the silliness of the sketch that resonates with us, and extreme silliness seems more relevant today than ever before in this increasingly pythonesque world. "
The sketch was first broadcast on BBC One on September 15, 1970 and begins with Cleese's character buying a newspaper on the way to work – which takes a little longer than usual because his walk "has gotten a little stupid lately". In his office, a gentleman named Mr. Putey (Michael Palin) is waiting for him, who is asking the Ministry for a scholarship to develop his own silly walk. (Note: the name is spelled in the Pudey newspaper, but we'll go with the wiki spelling.) Mr. Putey demonstrates his silly walk-in progress, but the minister is not immediately impressed. "It's not particularly stupid, is it?" he says. "I mean the right leg is not silly at all and the left leg only makes half a turn forward every second step."
Mr. Putey insists that a government grant would allow him to actually make the walk very silly. The minister continues to talk about household constraints – while silly walking through his office – and shows him an old film role with various silly walks. Finally, he informs Mr. Putey that he wants to offer him a research grant for the Anglo-French silly walk. The sketch shows a couple of French people demonstrating this "La Marche Futile".
Enlarge /. Comparison of two complete gait cycles by the Minister, one by Mr. Putey, and the middle curve for people without pathology.
Erin E. Butler and Nathaniel J. Dominy
It is not the first time that scientists are thinking of examining the unusual gaits shown in the sketch, for example to apply the biomechanical teachings to develop better robots. As early as 2007, researchers from Cornell University came to the conclusion that the silly walks are entertaining, but they require a lot more energy than conventional walking and running. (This could partly explain why Cleese refused the silly walks in later years as the movements became increasingly difficult for him.)
For their own gait analysis, Butler and Dominy examined both Mr. Putey's and the minister's gait cycles in the video of the original 1970 television sketch and the minister's gears from a live stage performance in Los Angeles in 1980. "If silly walking can be defined as a departure from typical walking, silliness can be quantified using two-dimensional video-based motion analysis," they wrote. So that's what they did. Butler and Dominy found that the minister's silly gait is much more variable than a normal human gait – 6.7 times as much – while Mr. Putey's walk-in-progress is only 3.3 times more variable.
What does all this silly walking have to do with academic assessment? The sketch might mock bureaucratic inefficiency, but Cleese's minister, when he met with Mr. Putey, is essentially dealing with an overused version of the peer review process that (the authors concluded) led to a fair assessment. In reality, "peer review is a very time-consuming process, both for the application process and for the reviews," said Butler.
"If the process was streamlined and grants were awarded faster, researchers could start work earlier, which would shorten the research schedule," said Dominy. This would also save administrators time and money.
"Obviously, the Sketch does it to extremes – a peer review for one person in 20 seconds," said Dominy to Ars. "Satire is double-edged. The Sketch mocks bureaucratic inefficiency with silly walking and at the same time ridicules hyperefficiency over current views simplified peer review. " He cited evidence that reducing the grant period by 80 percent would streamline the process without adversely affecting the likelihood of receiving funding. For example, in 2013 the Australian National Health and Medical Council streamlined its peer review process, saving an estimated $ 2.1 to 4.9 million (in Australian dollars) a year.
"The results of the research grant awarded to Mr. Pudey (sic) are unknown to us, which weakens our central argument for the potential economic benefits of a broader peer review in a broader sense," the authors wrote (with a firm tongue) in their Job.
DOI: Gait and Attitude, 2020. 10.1016 / j.gaitpost.2020.02.019 (About DOIs).