If you’ve ever seen a pelican at the beach, you might have noticed that they seem to “surf” above the wave crests (there’s a video in the link). Because I compulsively generate hypotheses for everything, I imagined it was a hunting technique, and the wave action was bringing fish closer to the surface, or maybe the shallower troughs made the fish more visible at depth.
Nope. It turns out what they’re really doing is using the slight updrafts of air generated by the waves themselves to increase their lift, allowing them to glide farther using less energy. Just how much energy they conserve was modeled in a paper published this week out of UC-San Diego, as part of a PhD student’s master’s thesis.
They don’t just look like they’re surfing—they really are surfing on waves of air.
the upturned wing
of an old pelican
waves go by
I almost forgot to share this week’s sciku! It was inspired by researchers at Stanford and TU/e who have been studying how hummingbirds hum.
If you’ve spent any time watching hummingbirds, you might already know they answer: they don’t fly like regular birds that apply aerodynamic force to the undersides of their wings with every down-stroke. Their wings move back and forth horizontally, letting letting them hover like a helicopter. This motion creates pressure fields on both the up and the down strokes, and those fields of compacted air oscillate back and forth at 40 hertz, creating their iconic and soothing hum, rather than an annoying buzz.
What was interesting about this story, though, was the great pains the researchers went through to record the hummingbirds and then process the data. Over the course of four days, they filmed with 15 high speed cameras, over two thousand microphones in a “sound camera” array, and recorded the movement of air with a series of pressure plates. Then it took THREE YEARS of machine learning AI to process and synchronize the massive amount of data that was collected.
There’s a cliched joke about scientists wasting time and grant money studying whale burps or the way cheese melts on toast. But it’s often the challenges that come with solving any problem—even a mundane problem—that lead to new advances. In this case, the sound camera technology that was developed will be used to decrease the background noise created by drones and fans, and ultimately could make all of our appliances quieter. Wouldn’t that be nice?
heavy in the field
In science news this week, researchers at the University of Lund put a butterfly in a wind tunnel for the first time to study the aerodynamics of their flight. It’s often been assumed that their flat floppy wings were an inefficient way to fly, but nature is often more than what it seems.
It turns out that the clapping action of their wings shoots a jet of air backward, propelling them 28% faster than they’d be able to fly otherwise. Yes, like jetpacks!
These short bursts of irregular motion make them much more difficult to catch as prey for swooping birds. Predicting where the butterfly will be as they strike is like a batter trying to hit a knuckleball. Which should be no surprise—baseball players like Willie Stargell have long compared hitting the pitch to catching a butterfly with tweezers.
It’s another great lesson from nature about the quality of our assumptions.
answers to the question
of one hand clapping
This week’s sciku takes me back 20 years to my job as a group home counselor. We were trying to help adults with schizophrenia manage their lives and illnesses more independently, but the medication, which was so necessary, also made it difficult.
Antipsychotic medication needs cross the blood-brain barrier to work, but when you swallow a pill, only a small fraction makes it through. As a result, the effective dose is much larger than it would be otherwise, leading to very unpleasant side effects—from weight gain and fatigue to diabetes and eventually organ toxicity. Many patients had to take multiple drugs hoping to counteract the side-effects. And once they found a combination that worked, it would only last a while before they had to start over with an entirely new regimen due to the accumulating toxicity. It was rough—but still better than the hell of psychosis.
So I was thrilled to learn that researchers at McMaster University have developed a nasal spray using extremely fine particles of corn starch to deliver antipsychotic medication more directly into the brain, sneaking it through a hidden door along the olfactory nerve. The corn starch breaks down into simple sugar, but gradually, allowing it to be time-released with a 75% lower effective dose. Instead of taking medication multiple times each day, patients will only have to use a nasal spray once every three days, with far fewer side effects. The difference this will make for people’s quality of life is huge.
And that’s what I love about reading science news. Unlike what we call “The News,” where negativity bias is exploited for clicks, science incentivizes the good—it’s mostly mysteries solved, problems fixed, new questions to ponder. And there’s something new every week. This time with a bonus one-liner.
the men line up
for their meds
more drizzle than mist refilling the pill box
Good news to start the new year from the Wistar Institute, where scientists have developed a novel approach for fighting antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The new class of antibiotics, IspH inhibitors, use a double-pronged strategy, killing bacteria while also flagging them to be targeted by the immune system’s cytotoxic T cells—like a fleeing bank robber covered in red dye. That way, if any of individual bacterium evolve to resist to the antibiotic, they’ll be hunted down by the body’s immune system before they can escape and become a new resistant strain.
“The end of antibiotics” has been touted as a looming crisis since I was in grade school, but this is why I’ve never been very worried about it. As an organizational system, human society is very good at incentivizing and so solving slow-moving problems. As problems become worse, the rewards for solving them become bigger, and we’re a very clever species. What we don’t do well is move quickly or incentivize responsibility, so the real crises are usually shocks and sudden collapses. When it comes to civilization’s future, I worry about viruses and CMEs and the petrodollar, but not things like this. We’re good at solving problems when they arrive gradually.
This week’s tiny sciku winds this into a little knot, with a nod towards our New Year’s resolutions.