Yvonne Carts-Powell

That darn bumblebee story, revisited

In Uncategorized on September 21, 2009 at 5:51 pm

bumblebee, by snowbear When I give a talk about the uses and abuses of science and technology, I often used the bumblebee story as an example of both (see excerpt at the end of this post for the full bumblebee story).

One point of the story is that realistic modeling is important. A new paper published in Science describes a better model of insect wings that are both bumpy and floppy. University of Oxford researchers made realistic models of the wing movements and deformations of the desert locust, a creature that can fly as far as 300 kilometers at a time. Michael Torrice at ScienceNOW has a good explanation: Floppy Wings = Efficient Flight.

Photo by Charlie Wrenn.

(Excerpt from The Science of Heroes, Chapter 4)

You’ve probably heard the modern parable: even after an engineer “proves” that a bumblebee can’t fly, the little-insect-that-could merrily flutters away, ignoring the best calculations known to man.

On one hand, this story is a useful modern parable for persevering in spite of disapproval, or disbelief. It’s also useful for pointing out that while scientists study nature, the models we develop to explain it may not be correct.

On the other hand, the story can also be used to discount the conclusions of science altogether or to lump well-tested theories in with pseudoscience, the way some creationists try to suggest that evolution and “intelligent design” are equally valid theories.

The darn story is a teeth-gnashing pain in the rear. So far as we know, the story originated in the 1930s. Given what was known about aerodynamics and fluid flow at the time, we can presume that the engineer in question (if he existed), calculated the lift generated by a bumblebee’s wings as if they were fixed like an airplane wing. He might even have added in the speed of a typical bumblebee’s flight. Not surprisingly, such a tiny fixed wing would not be able to keep even the tiny weight of the bumblebee aloft.

The point is that the model was obviously flawed. It may have been a good place to start, but any scientist or engineer, on seeing the results of the calculation and the clear evidence of actual bumblebee flight, would have looked for a more realistic model. Since the 1930s, we’ve learned a lot about the lift generated by wings that move.

Further reading
Ivars Peterson, “Flight of the Bumblebee”, Science News Online, Vol. 166, No. 11 (Sept. 11, 2004) available online at http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20040911/mathtrek.asp . More about the bumblebee story from the admirable pen of Ivars Peterson.

Michael Dickinson, “Solving the Mystery of Insect Flight” Scientific American Magazine (June 17, 2001). More from a researcher who spent years figuring out a valid model for bumblebee (and other insect) flight.


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