Flying Bumblebees

It is mathematically proven, so ‘tis said, that the bumblebee cannot fly.

Well, sorta.

The truth of the matter is that in the early days of aeronautics, a scientist tried to calculate the lift generated by the bumblebee by pretending it was just like a small plane; i.e., that it had smooth wings that generated lift in proportion to their velocity through the air.  Actually, the bee’s wings are anything but smooth, what with all those veins.  Then, too, the wings constantly change shape as they beat.  Finally, the wings’ motion is quite complex, with both the forward and backward motion contributing to lift.  But even once the model corrected, there was another aspect missing.

Insects live in a different world.

Specifically, when you get down to their scale, the air is no longer simply a gas.  It is a thick, massy medium that shares characteristics with both gases and liquids.  The analytical tools of our large-scale aeronautics simply don’t apply in an obvious way.

Still, the problems are being solved.  There are a bunch of nanotechnologists working today on making tiny flying machines, especially towards developing nano surveillance drones.  They are discovering how the laws change in the strange world bugs live in.

That’s one case of what happens when we change scale.  Turns out that if you go still smaller, the world gets stranger still.

In our big world, a thing is either here or it is not.  Since nothing can be in two places at once, if you find out where something is, you know definitively that it cannot be anywhere else.  A or B, here or not here.  It’s all very simple.

But at the subatomic level, things are very different.  The mathematics that describe a subatomic particle are all about probabilities.  And most importantly, the probabilities are never exactly one (100% probability) or zero.  In quantum mechanical terms, a particle is never here and not there.  It always has a finite probability for both.  It exists as a wave in an uneven sea of probabilities.  The best you can say is that the probability is higher here and lower there.

You might guess that the mathematics just reflect our ignorance of a particle’s actual position, but it’s more than that.  What appears to be the truth is that a subatomic particle’s existence is not really localized.  Or perhaps the very idea of localization is not meaningful at a subatomic level.  The particles seem to really exist in some spread-out kind of way.  They are neither particles nor waves.  They are particle-wavy kinds of thingies.   At their quantum level, it seems to be true that they really can have a kind of existence in two places at once.

Wow.

In between these two worlds lies a third: the world of the microbes.  Ever since the mid-17th century and van Leewenhoek’s discovery of “animalcules,” we have known there was a large population of microbes hidden from normal sight.  At least, that’s what it said in my high school textbook.  While not untrue, that simple description beggars reality.  Today, the estimate is that more than half of the earth’s entire biomass consists of microbes.

And they live in another unimaginable world.  We used to think of them, from the largest bacteria to the smallest virus, like prolific but essentially isolated little beings, each species working out its own destiny.  In an evolutionary sense, we thought that the only way a species could change was for some internal mutation to be passed down the line of descent.

Today, we know that is not true.  They don’t live alone, uninfluenced by other microbial species.  Microbes exist in a world crowded with DNA fragments, DNA-less prions, and a simply unbelievable number of intricately folded proteins.  They are able to take up bits and pieces of their environment (such as a DNA fragment that confers resistance to some environmental threat – like an antibiotic), incorporate them, and pass them on to their descendants.  In short, the microbial world, too, is so radically different from anything in our own that both our intuition and our expectations need radical updating.

But wait, it gets worse.

Having just begun to realize how radically different the microbial environment is, we are hit with a staggering clue as to just how big their world really is.  Since 2003, Craig Venter’s ship, the Sorcerer II, has been sailing around the world, taking water samples every 200 nautical miles.  Using shotgun genomic sequencing (developed for the Human Genome Project) and completely new computational and database tools, in a single circumnavigation they discovered (Are you ready for this?) more than 6,000,000 new genes, thousands of new protein families, and a degree of molecular diversity that no one has even begun to count.

Mind you, this was just Phase I of the project.  And already they have doubled the number of known proteins.

Today, we look back at the HMS Beagle and realize she changed our entire world view.  I wouldn’t be surprised if someday they look back at Darwin’s ship and think how far the Sorcerer II surpassed her.

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