The Humble Beginnings of 5 Big Ideas

Where we see tangled headphones, annoying insects, and painful bandages, these scientists saw the beginnings of world-changing medical advances.

Red flyswatter and fly
Dan Saelinger/Trunk Archive

THE FLYSWATTER…might make soldiers safer.

Anyone who’s wielded a rolled-up newspaper to combat a housefly knows just how evasive the bug can be. Flies always seem to know where you’re coming from—and how to get away.

“Flies are incredibly good at what they do,” says Michael Dickinson, a professor of biology at the University of Washington. To study the insects in action, Dickinson coaxed flies through a tube that opened onto a tiny platform. Over this stage, a disc loomed, ready to flatten the flies from various directions—front, side, and back—while a high-speed camera filmed the insects’ reactions to the impending attack.

After running hundreds of bugs through his machine, Dickinson discovered something interesting. Within 300 milliseconds of a potential pounding, the flies prepared with “postural adjustments.” If the swat approached head-on, the fly would shift its middle pair of legs forward—propelling it backward and away from danger once it launched into the air. When the swat came from the rear, the fly would shift its middle legs backward to jump forward. Flies may fetishize dog droppings, but these insects are also graceful, delicate ballerinas.

Dickinson’s interest in housefly swatting goes beyond keeping his office pest-free. His research is helping others build elegant micro-robots that can mimic the creatures’ agility and flight patterns. The military, too, is interested in Dickinson’s work. It hopes to use findings like his to build drone planes with better reaction times, which could reduce the need for pilot-driven planes and keep soldiers out of harm’s way.

As for Dickinson, it should be noted that he doesn’t hate flies. In fact, he goes out of his way to avoid killing them: “I get annoyed when someone brushes a fly away, since I’m usually looking at it, watching it groom and move its little head.” —Judy Dutton

Next: Coral might reinvent sunscreen and help stop world hunger »

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