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DON’T BE DISCOMBOBULATED BY THE FACT ANTS APPEAR TO BE STRONGER THAN YOU

SHARE DON’T BE DISCOMBOBULATED BY THE FACT ANTS APPEAR TO BE STRONGER THAN YOU

QUESTION: Why are ants so strong?

ANSWER: Humans are constantly discombobulated by the scale of things. We see a grasshopper jump 20 times its body length, or we see ants carry three times their body weight up the side of a tree, and we begin to think: What's wrong with us? Why is nature kicking sand in our face?Let's not be insecure. Frankly we should be happy that we are humans and not bugs. Bugs are disgusting. And more to the point, bugs have an unfair advantage. Their mass is so small they are virtually unaffected by the Earth's gravitational field. True, they don't float. Gravity pulls at everything, large and small. But insects are such lightweights compared to their surface area that they don't need to devote many muscles to holding themselves up. Moreover, at their scale, other physical phenomena come into play, like surface tension. A gecko can use surface tension to crawl up a clean plate-glass door. On the downside, surface tension can prevent an ant from freeing itself from a drop of water.

Now let's talk muscles. You say animals have stronger muscles? (Buzzer sounds.) Wrong as always! A muscle is a muscle is a muscle, whether its human or ape or ant. It's just contractable tissue. Ross Hutchins wrote in his 1966 book "Insects" (you see, we have all the latest information), "There is . . . no correlation between absolute muscle power and animal size, and the apparently greater strength of muscles of small animals is an illusion."

So the Spider-Man story is all wrong. Supposedly, mild-mannered science nerd Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and suddenly developed super "spider strength" in his still-spindly arms. It's a factually unsound assertion! Insects get their strength from being heavily muscled. Ants are the insect version of steroid freaks.

Ants are also clever. They work brilliantly in teams. Three army ants working together can carry an object - say, a dead lizard - that could not be carried by the ants working individually even if the lizard were cut into three pieces. There are two reasons for this "super-efficiency" of ant teams, entomologist Nigel Franks recently noted in "The American Scientist."

1. They balance the object perfectly. Normally, an individual ant would labor against "rotational forces," or torque, created by a wobbling object.

2. They walk out-of-step with each other. The same trick is used by human soldiers when they carry a stretcher. By walking this way, there is likely to be more load-bearing legs on the ground, per capita, at any given moment.

Let's be more specific. An ant has six legs, and it walks by moving three at a time, two on one side and one on the other. So, as it steps forward, it is using only 50 percent of its legs to bear the load. But put three ants together, and, ideally, at any given moment two will have all six legs bearing the load and one will be stepping forward. Of the 18 legs total, 15 are rooted in the ground, or about 83 percent of the legs per capita.

What is incredible is that these ants go totally stupid away from the colony. Put 100 army ants on a flat surface and they will march in a circle, endlessly, round and round, until they starve to death.

QUESTION: Why did Neander-thals die out even though they were huge and strong?

ANSWER: We killed them.

For much of "human" history, starting with the emergence of Homo sapiens about half a million years ago, there were three distinct populations of pre-modern people. In Southern Europe and Western Asia were the brutish Neanderthals, with their prominent brow line, stubby limbs and oversized but unsophisticated brains. In Africa were the Middle Stone Age Africans, more closely resembling modern humans but still using primitive tools. In Eastern Asia lived people who resembled neither Neanderthals nor Africans, though the fossil record is incomplete and little is known of them.

About 35,000 years ago, something happened. In Spain and France a new entity appeared, called Cro-Magnon Man. He was us. He could walk into any bowling alley in America and no one would blink. (As Jared Diamond noted in a story called "The Great Leap Forward" in the May issue of Discover magazine, you could probably teach him how to fly an airplane, just as the children of modern "Stone Age" New Guineans have become pilots.)

You probably remember seeing illustrations in school textbooks and in Time-Life coffee table books of the March of Human Evolution, a left-to-right sequence going through several monkey phases, then through the Neanderthal stage, then Cro-Magnon, until finally you see a guy who looks like a TV anchorman only he's naked. Forget all that. Neanderthals didn't evolve into Cro-Magnon men. No, the Cro-Magnon men probably evolved from the Stone Age Africans, and at some point in that process they arrived in Europe, home of the Neanderthals.

Then they killed them. Maybe. There's no actual proof of this. For a long time anthropologists didn't want to admit that noble savages might not be so noble. But the fact is that the last Neanderthals died off about 32,000 years ago . . . shortly after the modern humans arrived.

Hmmmmmm . . .

QUESTION: Why do British rock 'n' roll stars speak in cockney accents but sound like Americans when they sing?

ANSWER: British bands emulated the American accent because they grew up listening to American rhythm-and-blues and early rock 'n' roll. American opera singers, when they sing in Italian, use an Italian accent.

A less obvious reason is that singing tends to mute any accent. According to Rachel Lebon, a music professor at the University of Miami and a singer as well, singing requires the projection of sound on a vowel, as opposed to a consonant. Consonants, more than vowels, get wrecked and abused by accents, or are dropped altogether. You can't do that as easily when you sing.

A reporter asked The Beatles at a 1964 press conference, "Why do you sing like Americans but speak with an English accent?"

John Lennon answered, "It sells better."

Do you have questions? Arguments? Documentation? Newly unearthed religious scrolls? Send all to "Why Things Are" World Headquarters, c/o Tropic Magazine, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami FL 33132.