Walk through a crowded city and you’re making dozens of instinctive choices: swerve to avoid the guy staring at his Blackberry, walk around those subway grates, speed up so you don’t walk side by side with a stranger, and on and on. While pedestrians aren’t usually thinking too hard about these decisions, scientists are. Over at Slate, Tom Vanderbilt has a four-part series on the history, the science, and the future of walking in American. In part two, about the science of walking, Vanderbilt profiles a company that models how people walk with mathematics:
The Legion model seeks to understand, with each step the pedestrian takes, what their next step will be, based on a mathematically weighted combination of three factors (the tolerance for, and wish to avoid, inconvenience, frustration, and discomfort). More minor things are often observed—people pausing briefly in London before exiting a transit station to see if it’s raining—but not fully modeled yet. (Plottner [Legion’s VP] notes the company already has some 9 million pedestrian measurements.)
Lucy loved the land, new research suggests. A study in this week’s edition of the journal Science puts forth a foot bone from the early hominid Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy’s kind) as evidence that this species was built for walking—meaning human ancestors could have been striding around on ground level for most of their lives by 3.2 million years ago.
Scientists already knew that A. afarensis could walk on two feet but were unsure whether the creatures climbed and grasped tree branches as well, much like their own ancestor species and modern nonhuman apes. The fourth metatarsal … shows that A. afarensis moved around more like modern humans. “Now that we know Lucy and her relatives had arches in their feet, this affects much of what we know about them, from where they lived to what they ate and how they avoided predators,” said Carol Ward. [The Guardian]
The bone in question comes from Ethiopia, home to many significant hominid finds. And though it is just a small sample, that arched shape in the foot bone suggests Australopithecus had rigid feet, and may not have been much better at climbing trees than you or I.
Arches were an important part of our evolution into humans, because they make climbing trees much harder. The arches on the inside of the foot, nearer to the big toe, serve as a shock absorber when we plant our feet back on the ground. All other living primates have feet made for grasping and bending to hang onto tree branches and their young, more like our hands than our feet. [LiveScience]
That’s the conclusion of a study by University of Pittsburgh scientists published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The work reviewed the results of nine other studies over the years that included more than 34,000 people aged 65 or older. When they tallied the total results, the numbers jumped off the page:
Only 19 percent of the slowest walking 75-year-old men lived for 10 more years compared to 87 percent of the fastest walking ones. Only 35 percent of the slowest walking 75-year-old women made it to their 85th birthday compared to 91 percent of the fastest walkers. [Boston Globe]
The results aren’t a huge surprise (“duh” comes to mind). The researchers note that walking is controlled falling, involving fine muscle control and the synchronicity of several systems:
“Walking requires energy, movement control, and support and places demands on multiple organ systems, including the heart, lungs, circulatory, nervous, and musculoskeletal systems,” the authors wrote. “Slowing gait may reflect both damaged systems and a high energy cost of walking.” [Los Angeles Times]