time microscopes

There's a sort of ironic poetry in the popularity of fail pictures and videos--that is, images and clips of people injuring themselves and/or breaking things in dramatic and painful fashion. In our increasingly connected world, where the latest information and innovations are available at the click of a button, we are still viscerally entertained by watching someone crash a bicycle into something hard and unforgiving.

I usually avoid these types of videos because I've injured myself numerous times in a variety of similar ways, and I'm prone to vicarious sympathy pains. If I watch too many handrail-between-the-legs videos, I might not be able to have kids later on.

However, I do appreciate watching a ladybug tumble from takeoff position or a frog miss a dragonfly with dramatic bravado. Perhaps, on a deeper level, it's because the mechanics of flight or predation fascinate me in their beauty and complexity, and seeing it go wrong is a pleasant surprise. More likely, it's because I like to make airplane-crashing sounds as I watch that ladybug ungracefully sputter to the ground.

Thankfully, Andrew Mountcastle and his high-speed camera indulge us with slow-motion nature-fail.

As a grad student at the University of Washington studying the flight mechanisms of invertebrates, Andrew spends a lot of time filming the takeoff and flight of insects around campus. Using a slow-motion camera filming at 500 frames per second, he has captured valuable video that gives us insight into the mechanics of flight, specifically how wing flexibility affects a bug's flight. This also gives him the opportunity to catch some of the ephemeral yet epic-fail-worthy moments in nature that we rarely see.

Equally interesting, however, is something Andrew mentioned in an interview for a recent profile on the UW website that hadn't occurred to me before: "I view (high-speed cameras) as time microscopes. In the same way that microscopes allow you to magnify space, these allow you to magnify time -- to see details of time that we'd never see with the naked eye. It's a great tool."

A time microscope is indeed a great tool. I don't know how many times I've watched a ladybug take off, fly somewhere and land, but I remember it quite clearly as first a bug, then a blur, then a bug again. Watching his high-speed video of the same bug's successful ascent, the blur becomes a series of steps of orderly pre-flight preparation and carefully-orchestrated movements that allow the round little beetle to gracefully lift off and soar (I especially like the Superman-extension of the front legs).

A common misconception is that physicists have determined that, due to the laws of aerodynamics, it is impossible for a bumblebee to fly. This is clearly not the case, as we see them flitting about all the time. Rather than throwing up our hands and saying it must be some higher power carrying them about, however, we can examine the flight of the bee with a time microscope like Andrew's and see what most people can't: when a bumblebee flies, it moves its wings in a figure-eight motion that creates a vortex in the air, lifting them and carrying them about (A more scientific answer here)

If you'd like to check out more fascinating videos from Andrew's time microscope, head on over to http://students.washington.edu/mtcastle/movies.php, where you can see ladybugs, dragonflies, bees--and most importantly, inept frogs--flying slowly through the air. For those of you less bug-minded, I'd also encourage you to check out Time Warp and Things But Very Slowly, which turn the time microscope on everything from a slap in the face to a finger in a table saw (now I know you want to see that).


via UW News

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