Sunday, June 14, 2009

Bumblebees can't fly -- but they do!

Has anyone out there heard this urban legend? (I could swear I've heard it from multiple sources, but I can't find it on snopes.com, so I'm beginning to doubt my memory.)

Apparently an engineer once performed a bunch of aerodynamics calculations on the weight, shape, and wingspan of the common bumblebee -- and proved that bumblebees can't fly! But they do fly, demonstrating conclusively that bumblebees know "the secret", or something like that...

This little gem has got to be one of the funniest examples of empiricism FAIL. Our knowledge of aerodynamics is ultimately based on observation and experience. So when your theoretical calculations contradict experimental evidence in an obvious and consistent way, then perhaps your first thought should be "Hmm, where did I go wrong in this calculation?" not "Eureka! I've proven magic!"

Now, it's very possible that bumblebees do fall outside the norm in terms of mass vs. wingspan. But then (by asking why? and how?) they should be taken as a golden opportunity to learn something new about flight. As Isaac Asimov famously said 'The most exciting phrase to hear in science -- the one that heralds new discoveries -- is not "Eureka!" (I found it!) but "that's funny..."'

Actually, that one really is on snopes. It turns out that it's not clear Asimov ever said that. But he should have! :D

13 comments:

littlemissattitude said...

It isn't just you. I've heard that urban legend as well.

Elaine

Sabayon said...

I can just imagine that moment in the lab: "Eureka, I've proven magic!". Lap partner: *facepalm* "Smith that's the third time you've said that this week."

In any case I've heard this story many times as part of an over-extended metaphor in Sunday school, which should be no surprise given Mormons' love of bees. Apparently it just shows you need to preserver and endure to the end and...stuff

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Elaine!!!

Thanks, it's good to know I'm not just imagining this.

Hey Sabayon!!!

Exactly! And I vaguely suspect that the people who don't get what's wrong with this story are the same people who will claim that evolution isn't proven because there's (supposedly) so much evidence contradicting it...

Rebecca said...

"Eureka! I've proven magic!"

I'm going to start saying that ALL THE TIME. Best phrase EVER.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Rebecca!!!

mathmom said...

Christine Lavin had a song (Bumblebees) which invoked the urban legend. It is a nice song, even though the legend isn't true...

From her liner notes to _Good Thing He Can't Read My Mind_, if anyone is interested (not in block quotes since I'm html-illiterate):

...back in the early 1900s when aerodynamics was a hobby for scientific types, some guys did experiments with bumblebees, then decided that based on the size of their chubby bodies and their thin, fragile wings, aerodynamically speaking, bumblebees shouldn't be able to fly. The first time I performed this song and gave this explanation was a club called "Passim's" off Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An MIT-type was in the crowd, blurted out those initial studies were done with improperly made bee models, bumblebees can fly, the point was invalid. As you can imagine, I was totally embarrassed...

Anonymous said...

Many years ago I attended a lecture given by an expert in insect flight. As of 1995 (?), scientists still were not able to explain how flies were capable of flight (the leading models had them crashing after take-off). It isn't only body mass, but other things that needed more study, such as muscular strength and the physics of muscles expanding and contracting fast enough for the wings to beat fast enough for the insects to fly. I think I found the guy here:

http://www.dickinson.caltech.edu/Research

That group has done some cool stuff and last time I checked (years ago) they had some cool videos to prove it.

-- t.n. trap

Ben said...

Second, (First?) stop after Snopes...Wikipedia.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Mathmom!!!

Well, even if it's not true, that's no reason not to write a song about it. ;^)

Hey T. N. Trap!!!

Wow, that's cool! I imagine it's something that's incredibly difficult to model, which makes it an exciting field for research!

I just mentioned mass and wingspan because I've heard (another urban legend?) that for humans to fly, they'd have to have a wingspan of eight meters, which I assumed people calculated by plotting a curve of bird mass vs. wingspan...

Hey Ben!!!

Of course! Normally wikipedia is my first choice, but I thought snopes was at least the expert on urban legends. Now I know better. ;^)

Nes said...

I had recently checked Snopes for this one as well after seeing a creationist using it as an argument. I knew I had read it on an urban legend busting site before, but it wasn't on Snopes after all. It was, however, on The Straight Dope!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Nes!!!

Thanks -- another interesting take on this silly myth! :D

Anonymous said...

The natural conclusion you should where your arerodynamic theory says something that flies shouldn't be able to fly is that your theory is incomplete or wrong.

As it happens, bumblebese thrive and fly on the cusp of the realm where the viscousity of air still matters. Turblence which would be a source or drag and disruption can still be tweaked into a source of extra lift for a bumblebee.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Anonymous!!!

Exactly -- when empirical results contradict your expectations, it's time to reconsider your expectations, and almost certainly learn something in the process. I hadn't thought about the fact that -- given their size -- the air viscosity affects them differently. Thanks for the explanation!