Monday, September 01, 2008


Launching flies

Friday morning, NPR’s Morning Edition aired an interesting item about research on how flies take off. Cal Tech researchers Michael Dickinson and Gwyneth Card got hold of an ultra-high-speed video camera — it takes 5400 frames per second, some 180 times the rate of the videos we typically see — and pointed it at fruit flies, using a prism to view them from multiple angles at once. They then approached them with a threat, and got images of their preparation and their flight.

The preparation was particularly notable. It’s obvious that they fly away from the approaching danger, but the researchers found interesting things about how they take a fraction of a second to move their feet in order to launch in the right direction to start with.

NPR spun the research as helping us in the battle against flies, but, of course, the investigation into how flies take off, fly, and land is not aimed at killing them more efficiently, but at studying the mechanics and dynamics that are involved — from end to end, and for each discrete bit in between.

I like the way Professor Dickinson puts it:

When you see a fly flittering around your hair, or your potato salad, you know, you might see an annoyance. But in my lab we really see a marvelous machine, arguably the most sophisticated flying device on the planet, and it’s all controlled by this brain about the size of a poppy seed.

No comments: