Masters of Physics in the Animal World or the Gauge Theory of Falling Cats

| July 13, 2015 | 0 Comments

Believe it or not, many animal species have mastered physics and use it for their advantage. That, of course, is often due to long years of evolution, rather than having a mental faculty of using the laws of physics to their advantage. Interestingly, various animal species have not only mastered physics, but actually taught engineers, biologists and physicists many important tips that were used in creating new technologies.

When it comes to using the laws of physics to one’s advantage, birds are the true experts. The ability of flight offers countless advantages for a species, including an element of safety, ability to reach otherwise inaccessible places and an ability to migrate to warmer climate zones. The original inspirers of the Wright brothers use the laws of aerodynamics as well as the unique form of their wings to induce thrust, which allows flight. Of course you probably knew that already; what is more surprising though is that are many bird species that can give a lesson or two to modern aeronautical engineers.

For a long time it was a mystery how owls are able to fly so silently — a feature giving them safety and a way to sneak up on their prey. A recent study has unveiled that numerous owl species have developed special feathers that allow to efficiently eliminate aerodynamic noise as they dive down towards their prey. In addition to this, the velvety down of the top of the wing plays a crucial role in reducing the sound of flight. Studying the growth patterns and the structure of the feathers might hold the key to far reaching applications in modern stealth planes and submarines.

Owls are not the sole miracle makers of the bird kingdom, a tiny creature known as Anna’s Hummingbird (named after Anna Massena in case you’re wondering) is able to reach speeds higher than 50 mph, which is highly impressive given their body size of around 5 inches. This means that these little hummingbirds can achieve a 383 body length per second speed, which, for comparison, is more than twice as fast as a modern fighter jet.

Another well known ability that numerous species exhibit is magnetoception or the ability to sense the magnetic field of the Earth. This explains numerous orientation abilities among different species of animals, starting with magnetotactic bacteria and ending with stingrays, sharks and chimaeras. Even though the exact mechanism of magnetoception is unknown, there are numerous possible explanations, including the two main ones — cryptochrome and the Fe3O4 model.

Another peculiar group of organisms comes under the name of extremophiles. This simply means a group of organisms that is capable of living in extreme conditions, such as extreme temperatures or pressure. It came as a great surprise when in the early 1980s scientists started uncovering these new species of bacteria that were capable of surviving in some of the hottest Earth’s environments. Later it was uncovered that extremophiles could also cope with extreme cold, high pressures, dangerous radiation and other hazards. In the recent years extremophiles are of particular interest to astrobiologists, as they might hold a key to how life began on Earth and possibly on other planets. Even though it is not fully understood how these animals adapt to such extreme environments, it is clear that long years of evolution have equipped them with the required tools. Studying these abilities could lead to profound applications. Here’s a short video from TED-Ed outlining the peculiarities of extremophiles.

But we don’t have to venture out so far in the list of exotic species — our beloved everyday variety cats can teach physicists a thing or two. In 1969 TR Kane and MP Scher from Stanford published a leading contender for the best title of a science paper ever:  A Dynamical Explanation of the Falling Cat PhenomenonThis paper, shines some scientific light on the well known trope that felines always land on their feet. Instead of throwing around a bunch of cats and seeing how they land, Kane and Scher created a simplified mathematical model of tow cylinder-like chunks that resembled some simple features of the spine of cats. Running this model to simulate the fall of a cat on a computer reproduced the expected results. Then in 1993 Richard Montgomery, continuing the tradition of cringe-worthy paper titles, published The Gauge Theory of Falling Catwhich continued the investigation of falling cats with even more sophisticated mathematical tools. Ironically, the main result of their study was that the original approach by Kane and Scher was the most optimal.

And now to wrap this up, here’s a cool video of a falling cat:

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