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According to this video, Rand Paul states the United States spent $118,000 USD to see if a metal replica of Thanos could snap his fingers. Is this what they were trying to figure out with these funds?

We spent $118,000 to study if a metal replica, a robot, of Marvel Comics evil warlord Thanos could snap his fingers. [...] They apparently hired some dude to wear metal gloves and then try to snap his fingers. You know what? They found out it's impossible to make a snapping sound with metal fingers. So robots of the world, be warned: it's hard to snap your fingers.

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    Dear Hot Network Question visitors: Welcome to Skeptics! Please read the link before answering or commenting.
    – Oddthinking
    Dec 24, 2022 at 23:34
  • Rand Paul's people who are trying to channel the spirit of William Proxmire did not do a thorough job. They missed the $994k grant to Georgia Tech for Fast, Furious and Fantastic Beasts, which also funded some of this research. Dec 25, 2022 at 10:26
  • Um, actually, the word "replica" means "exact duplicate". Since Thanos was not made out of metal, any metal copy of Thanos would not be a "replica". Dec 26, 2022 at 20:37
  • To whom with relevant interest, let alone knowledge could a minxy little $118,000 matter, in the quest for a metal replica of Thanos snapping his fingers? Dec 27, 2022 at 0:24
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    This kind of thing is always frustrating to me as a researcher - You're criticised because the public can't understand your research, but when you try and link it to a pop culture thing, in the spirit of fun and to make it engaging, someone comes along in bad faith and says it's a waste of money. The best similar example is probably the research that shows why spaghetti breaks into three pieces when you snap it - it's important in basically everything that has similar failure modes, like, say, suspension bridge cables.
    – lupe
    Dec 27, 2022 at 10:21

3 Answers 3

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The grant is #2019371, where the $118k+ is only the 2020 funds. From the description, it seems clear that they published a paper and are planning another that builds on the first. That first paper is open access; a snippet reads:

Using high-speed imaging and force sensors, we analyse the dynamics of the finger snap… Our analysis reveals the central role of skin friction in mediating the snap dynamics by acting as a latch to control the resulting high velocities and accelerations. We evaluate the role of this frictional latch experimentally, by covering the thumb and middle finger with different materials to produce different friction coefficients and varying compressibility… We also develop a soft, compressible friction-based latch-mediated spring actuated model to further elucidate the key role of friction and how it interacts with a compressible latch.

They did not test a "metal glove". The closest test was of thimbles under medical gloves:

Force data are collected for 5 snaps made while wearing a nitrile glove with lubrication, while wearing latex rubber on both fingers, and while wearing a metal thimble on both fingers underneath the nitrile glove.

It seems "hired some dude" does not seem to be an accurate description either:

We thank two members of the BhamlaLab for volunteering to participate in the finger snap experiments.

Thanos was an inspiration for the work, but it's not about him. The authors suggest that the research will be helpful in understanding the mechanics behind creatures like termites and ants which have snapping mandibles, in addition to being useful for developing prosthetics and "soft robotics".

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    Any ideas why the NSF site sometimes uses £ instead of $? I assume it is some sort of bug, not a reference to English pounds.
    – Oddthinking
    Dec 24, 2022 at 11:42
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    @Oddthinking I've only seen them use $. I wonder if it's trying to translate the amount for you, even though you don't use pounds.
    – Laurel
    Dec 24, 2022 at 13:55
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    @fredsbend From the paper: "Multiple termite species, including Termes panamaensis and Pericapritermes nitobei, as well as a species of ant known as Mystrium camillae, have all been observed pressing their mandibles together to generate ultrafast motion in a manner reminiscent of the finger snap that humans perform".
    – Laurel
    Dec 24, 2022 at 17:59
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    @fredsbend I don't understand the criticism. They're comparing several different types of materials with varying friction coefficients, one of which involves metal thimbles under rubber gloves. They collected the data to compare to the other materials. Several of the authors have papers on the subject of fast moving parts of various insects, so I'd expect them to be publishing something in the future that explores that angle in depth.
    – Laurel
    Dec 24, 2022 at 20:02
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    @fredsbend: I searched the paper for Thanos and found zero direct references. There was a mention of Avenger movies (which weren't included in the reference section! For shame!) In their press release, they mention Thanos, presumably to attract attention. I am not sure if you are asking the OP to explicitly downplay the link to Thanos.
    – Oddthinking
    Dec 24, 2022 at 22:47
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The statement is extremely misleading.

When you say something like “Group of people X paid amount Y to achieve goal Z”, that implies the following things:

  1. Achieving goal Z was the primary purpose of spending that money.

  2. All of the money Y went towards achieving that goal Z.

These implications are false in the current case. What is actually true is:

  1. “We” (the US government) did spend $118K in fiscal year 2020 to fund a research grant.

  2. One of the goals of the grant was to obtain new knowledge about “latch-mediated spring actuation”, a class of mechanical systems seen in nature that contains finger snapping as one example.

  3. The sole scientific publication resulting from the grant so far did study the mechanics of finger snapping, and did study the question of whether metal fingers could be snapped, and did indirectly refer to the Marvel movies’ Thanos character snapping his fingers. And presumably the researchers did hire someone (whether a “dude” or not, I can’t say) to help perform experiments.

The implications above are false, because studying whether Thanos can snap his fingers was obviously not the stated goal of the researchers — the insight that Thanos would find it more difficult than a human to snap his fingers is only one (completely insignificant) byproduct of the work, which Paul conveniently focuses his attention on.

(In fairness to Mr Paul, one of the researchers seems to have played a part in his university issuing a press release hyping this completely insignificant connection to Marvel movies, as discussed in another answer. So arguably the researchers can be seen as guilty of a similar kind of dishonesty as the senator, and in their unnecessary focus on PR probably exposed themselves to the kind of criticism he is leveling at them.)

Moreover, even if the improved understanding of finger snapping was really the only tangible deliverable resulting from the money spent on the grant, scientific research produces many intangible deliverables (training of future scientists, and producing knowledge that may take a few years to get published, and seeding the insights of future, potentially groundbreaking, research, etc) that are difficult to quantify, especially by politicians who seem to care more about creating an impression favorable to their agenda than about getting at the truth. For all we know, that $118K could result in another publication next year that will win the researchers a Nobel prize.

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    This answer feels heavily biased and mostly theoretical.
    – user11643
    Dec 24, 2022 at 17:54
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    @fredsbend it’s unclear to me what you mean. Can you point to a specific part of my answer that you find problematic?
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 24, 2022 at 19:53
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    @fredsbend I made some edits, maybe you’d find the answer more balanced now. But in any case if you have specific criticism of anything I wrote, I’d be happy to hear it.
    – Dan Romik
    Dec 25, 2022 at 0:31
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    Latch-mediated spring actuation would have huge implications in switch design, where it's all about pulling the contacts apart abruptly to prevent arcing. youtube.com/watch?v=jrMiqEkSk48 Dec 25, 2022 at 22:50
  • Locked to prevent ongoing edit war. Let's resolve in chat.
    – Oddthinking
    Dec 28, 2022 at 5:57
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The US National Science Foundation on their official US government website has an article Snap! A record-breaking motion at our fingertips which says:

The snapping of a finger was first depicted in ancient Greek art around 300 B.C. Today, that same snap initiates evil forces for the villain Thanos in Marvel's latest "Avengers" movie. That inspired a group of U.S. National Science Foundation-funded researchers at Georgia Tech to study the physics of a finger snap and determine how friction plays a critical role.

So the US government is on record as relating this research to Thanos and Marvel comics.

Georgia Tech, where some of the research took place, says in "Oh, Snap!" A Record-Breaking Motion at Our Fingertips:

Acharya and Bhamla felt a particular push to apply this framework to a finger snap after seeing the movie Avengers: Infinity War, released in April 2018 and produced by Marvel Studios. In it, Thanos, a villainous character, seeks to obtain six special stones and place them into his metal gauntlet. After collecting them all, he snaps his fingers and triggers universe-wide consequences.

...would it be possible to snap at all while wearing an armor gauntlet, the researchers asked? In the case of a finger snap, they suspected that skin friction played a more important role compared to other spring and latch systems. With the frictional properties of a metal gauntlet, they imagined it might be impossible.

...

“Our results suggest that Thanos could not have snapped because of his metal armored fingers,” said Acharya, first author of the study.

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    There is something unsatisfyingly incomplete -- not downvote-worthy -- about this answer. I could quote from the same sources to support the claim that this grant was about Greek art ("Based on ancient Greek art from 300 B.C., humans may very well have been snapping their fingers for hundreds of thousands of years before that") but it was a materials-research experiment ("investigations into ultrafast behaviors in animals") which only has a fun connection to Greek art in order to be approachable for laypeople.
    – Corbin
    Dec 24, 2022 at 22:52
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    This explains the Thanos connection, but falls to highlight the claim is a lie by omission.
    – Schwern
    Dec 24, 2022 at 23:07
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    @Corbin Georgia Tech is presenting the main research question as "would it be possible to snap at all while wearing an armor gauntlet?"
    – DavePhD
    Dec 24, 2022 at 23:42
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    @Corbin I did find it downvote-worthy. The poster presents an article written in a "popular science" style, designed to attract the interest of and entertain laypeople, and perhaps inspire the younger ones to pursue a career in science, as giving the scientific justification for that line of research. Articles like this have little connection to the criteria scientists use when examining grant applications to see if they're worthwhile. It's not a good source to actually answer the question.
    – cjs
    Dec 25, 2022 at 0:19

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