by Jennifer Kelly
Professor Lynn Fontenot of Istpot University in Ohio has received a $4 million dollar grant from the Templeton Foundation to research a question that she says has long perplexed humanity. That is, how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood.
The grant is the third in the Templeton Foundation’s “Supporting Humanities Research By Asking Questions Best Answered While Drunk or Stoned” Program (SHRBAQBAWD/S) and follows a $4.4 million grant to answer “Big Questions in Free Will,” and a more-recent $5 million grant called the “Immortality Project.”
“As you know, the Templeton Foundation has a long history of putting our money behind humanities-based research projects that are unlikely to produce any concrete results,” said spokesperson Fred Offered. “The questions we ask are those that are usually only discussed by philosophy graduate students at one a.m. on a Saturday in a Taco Bell parking lot, sucking down a post-kegger chalupa or two. We hope that projects like these will help the bring those discussions into the daylight.”
Fontenot said that her interest in what she calls “The Woodchuck Conundrum” is something that she has pondered since her father first asked of her as a child.
“I used to stay up nights thinking about the question, falling asleep with the images of woodchucks hurling two-by-fours, plywood sheeting, pieces of palm trees, whatever they could get their little paws on,” she said. “As I moved into university and focused on my writing, it fell to the back burner, but it was always lurking around there. Now, with this grant, we can bring together some of the greatest minds in academia to give the conundrum the consideration that it deserves.”
As part of the grant, Fontenot will distribute money to other researchers who express an interest in participating in the project. There are also plans for a large conference that will bring together dozens of minds to present posters and papers on the conundrum as well as a book on the subject.
The conundrum was actually answered in 1988 by Dick Thomas, a New York state fish and wildlife technician, who discerned that based upon the creature’s ability to move dirt as it digs a burrow, an average woodchuck could conceivably chuck approximately 700 pounds of wood“on a good day with the wind at his back.”
Upon hearing that, Fontenot muttered under her breath about “stupid reporters who don’t understand the purpose of humanities,” sighed and took a long pull from her Starbucks Iced Double Chai with two pumps before answering.
“I am familiar with the Thomas study,” she said. “But he’s just looking at the hard numbers. He has no passion for the details, for what motivated the woodchuck, for the nature of the action. He never asked about the emotions of the woodchuck or, for that matter, the emotions of the wood itself. How did the wood feel about being chucked? When it hit the ground, how did it feel? Did it feel at all? Did it make a sound? If no one had been around, would it make a sound? Is there a religious aspect to the chucking, or is it strictly secular? These are questions that only sociologists, English professors, philosophers and the like can attempt to answer. We don’t want numbers, we don’t want proof. We’ll leave that to the so-called hard sciences.”
The grant comes on the heels of a $5 million grant to Professor John Fischer at the University of California – Riverside for his “Immortality Project,” which will study a variety of questions, including how belief in an afterlife influences human behavior and how near-death experiences vary across cultures. The grant and study have been lauded many who think it will actually prove or disprove the concept of an afterlife, but laughed at by many critics as yet another example of humanities researchers trying to justify their existence.
“I had a chuckle when I first heard about it, but overall I have no real problem with the Templeton programs or Dr. Fontenot’s research. After all, you can only over-analyze Shakespeare and Ayn Rand so much,” said Tyler Gaffney, chair of Istpot’s computer science department, whose lab has recently had several breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. “This will keep them happy and out of the way of those of us who are actually doing work that matters.”