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“Penis, penis, penis, penis, penis.”
Diane Kelly is making the point that she is used to saying the word. She says it in front of large gatherings of academics. She has said it to a Tallahassee police officer who caught her by the side of the road, removing one from a dead armadillo. She says it to people at barbecues and dinner parties who ask her what she does for a living.
Kelly, a 30-year-old postdoctoral fellow at Cornell, is the first—and to her knowledge only—scientist in the world to study the biomechanics of the mammalian penis. It is easy to speculate on the reasons no scientist has studied the penis in the past. It is especially easy when you consider that a) the majority of scientists are men, and b) the research involves things like “inflation and bending experiments,” wherein a rat penis is attached, by way of electric clamps, needles, and superglue, to a strain gauge and a force transducer. (The organ is not, mercifully, attached to the rat.) While Kelly allows that “men do squirm a lot” at her talks, she doesn’t think squeamishness is behind the dearth of research in this area. In her view it’s simply the newness of the field. Biomechanics—the application of principles of physics and engineering to living things—is a very young science, only 35 years old or so. “The early work looked at things that were big and flashy and obvious,” Kelly says, “like locomotion and feeding. Reproduction kind of fell by the wayside.” With biomechanics elders such as Steven Vog...