Another suburban legend shattered

By Sean Carroll | December 5, 2005 5:13 am

BeeThe laws of physics are safe for now.

It occasionally comes to pass that someone, for reasons that frankly escape me, would like to make the point that science doesn’t know everything. It doesn’t, of course, which is so obvious that the point hardly needs making. Equally obviously, science does know some things; when it comes to mundane features of the natural world, one hopes that existing puzzles will eventually be figured out.

One of the favorite anecdotes for the don’t-know-everything crowd involves the flight of the honeybee. As you may have heard, “bees shouldn’t be able to fly,” according to science as we know it. In fact, this idea goes back to French entomologists August Magnan and André Sainte-Lague, who in 1934 calculated that bee flight was aerodynamically impossible. Since bees have been observed to fly, the smart money has always been that Magnan and Sainte-Lague were, in scientific parlance, “wrong.” But that’s not the same as understanding how the darn insects actually do flit around.

Now we know. Bioengineers Michael Dickinson, Douglas Altshuler and colleages have analyzed the flight of the bumblebee (if you will), using a combination of high-speed photography and robotic models. The trick is that bees have flight muscles that have evolved differently from those of other insects — unintelligent design, I suppose. Consequently, they flap much faster than any other animal their size, and emply a unique rotation of their wings.

Chalk up another success for science. I understand that Dickinson and Altshuler will now start working on how to get experimental predictions out of string theory.


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Cosmic Variance

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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