Masters of Physics in Nature
Plants and animals sometimes keep PhD physicists wondering how they do what they do.
Fluid dynamics in moss. A humble little desert moss shown on PhysOrg has a “swiss army knife” of water collection tricks, allowing it to thrive in its harsh environment. Tiny barbed hairs on the leaf tips, called awns, not only collect moisture right out of the air, but send droplets into the leaves “at impressive speeds.” A video clip shows how this miniature water collection and transport system works. Fluid dynamics experts at BYU are thinking of applications. New Scientist sees a future in clean water collection using a similar mechanism. “The idea is to trap pure water from air.”
Electrical engineering in bees. Why are so many insects and spiders hairy? It might be they’re covered with electric field sensors. A paper in PNAS examines the antennae and hairs of bumblebees and concludes that the hairs detect weak electric fields. Because the hairs can also sense particles touching them, “This interaction raises the possibility that particle velocity information and electrical information, and interactions between them, can be encoded by a single hair.” It also raises the possibility that “electroreception is widespread in arthropods, fulfilling functions beyond the detection of floral electric fields.”
Power generation in fish. Imagine driving a toy car with electricity supplied by a torpedo ray. Japanese scientists demonstrated this feat by attaching electrodes to the electrical generation organ of such a fish, and ran a continuous current for over a minute when they supplied the electric organ with acetylcholine. When thinking about clean sources of power, why not use the best system known?
Scientists from the RIKEN Quantitative Biology Center (QBiC) in Osaka began work to develop a new type of electricity generator, based on the knowledge that electric rays known as torpedoes can beat other systems by generating electric power with near 100% efficiency. The torpedo has electric organs with densely-aligned membrane proteins that convert the chemical energy of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) into ion transport energy, and a nervous system that controls the whole process.
Hi-tech weaponry. An even more dramatic example of power generation shows how an electric eel can leap out of the water and deliver a stunning shock to an attacker. An account of eels attacking horses in the Amazon was thought to be a tall tale from explorer Alexander von Humboldt in 1807. Now, Kenneth Catania of Vanderbilt University has shown that the electric animals can increase their stun power by leaping out of the water toward an attacker (paper at PNAS). Watch the video clip on PhysOrg for demonstration. Nature News says that a mystery remains; how can the eel electrocute its victim without shocking itself.
Speed plants. We don’t think of plants moving, but some species can move really fast. The “popping cress” hurls its seeds with an acceleration of 0 to 10 meters per second in half a millisecond, PhysOrg reports. “Explosive shatter of these seed pods is so fast that advanced high-speed cameras are needed to even see the explosion.” How does it do it? Scientists at Max Planck were surprised that dehydration is not involved, as previously believed; the plant can hurl its seeds even when moist. The secret is in the curl of the fruit wall, that makes it react like a ‘snap bracelet.’ You can watch the action in a short embedded video clip.
Eye information processing. “At any given moment, the neuronal circuits in the brain receive and process sensory information that permits us to perceive and interact with the environment,” an article on Science Daily begins. “Yet it remains unclear how the visual brain processes natural stimuli.” An international team studied the excitatory and inhibitory responses of synaptic inputs and found a “push and pull” behavior between them, that helps the eye distinguish between natural and artificial stimuli.
Quantum mechanical DNA. The weird world of quantum mechanics operates in DNA, the molecule of life, reports PhysOrg. When it comes time for the strands to separate for transcription, “sound-like bubbles whizzing around” promote the initial split. These bubbles “whiz around like bullets in a shooting gallery,” a team member at the University of Glasgow said, at frequencies billions of times higher than audible to humans or dogs. Delocalizing waves, a quantum mechanical effect, appears now to break the weak bonds between the two strands, allowing transcription and replication enzymes in to do their work.
Animal intelligence: Watch the videos in this piece on The Conversation by Louise Gentle. You can see an octopus solving a puzzle, a squirrel doing Mission Impossible, and a “Houdini” honey badger employing tools in a variety of ways to get out of its enclosure. “Humans like to think of themselves as the most intelligent organisms on the planet,” Gentle writes, “so we are always surprised when animals appear clever and often outwit us.”
Who taught these organisms how to take command of the laws of physics? Rocks obey the law of gravity by falling mindlessly. It takes design to lift oneself off the ground for controlled flight. It makes no sense to imagine evolution outfitting completely unrelated animals like electric eels and bumblebees with electrical engineering. A wise Creator, however, wrote the book on physical laws. He surely knows how to apply them to creatures that He made for His own pleasure and glory.