Saturday, February 18, 2017

Matin Durrani and Liz Kalaugher's "Furry Logic"

Liz Kalaugher is a science and environment writer based in Bristol, UK. Fascinated by animals since a childhood encounter with a squashed frog, she is a particular fan of bats, bees and badgers. After winning journalism fellowships from the World Federation of Science Journalists and the European Geosciences Union, Kalaugher has also reported on beluga whales in the Canadian Arctic and Finnish reindeer. She has a materials science degree from Oxford University and a PhD in thin-film diamond.

Matin Durrani is editor of the international magazine Physics World, where he enjoys telling the stories that underpin physics and showing how it impacts so much of everyday life. Based in Bristol, UK, he first became intrigued by how animals use physics after publishing a special issue of Physics World on the subject in 2012. Durrani has a degree in chemical physics and did a PhD and postdoc squashing food gels at Cambridge University before moving into publishing.

Durrani and Kalaugher applied the “Page 99 Test” to their new book, Furry Logic: The Physics of Animal Life, and reported the following:
“…the gecko must plonk its feet right up close to the surface it’s trying to cling to; the molecules in its skin and the ceiling must be near enough to attract.“

That’s the first sentence on page 99 of Furry Logic: the Physics of Animal Life. And in many ways it represents the whole book. The page is about an animal - a tokay gecko, in this case – and expands on some of the physics behind that animal’s daily life. Geckos use miniscule adhesion forces to run around upside down on the ceiling, reaching the insects that insect-eaters without these powers can’t.

On the other hand, page 99 is part of chapter two, which showcases animals that employ the physics of forces. The other chapters cover different branches of this science that help animals survive – heat, fluids, sound, electricity and magnetism, and light. And we don’t just write about reptiles, although we do cover red-sided garter snakes, loggerhead turtles, Saharan sand vipers and Komodo dragons as well as geckos. There are mammals – dogs, cats, bats, elephants, California ground squirrels, and mice that lift their tiny pink front paws off the ground whilst they shake themselves dry. Invertebrates like giant squid, octopus and California spiny lobster make an appearance, as do birds such as peacocks and a cuckoo from the slopes of Mount Fuji, and plenty of insects – bees and hornets are arguably the top animal physicists since they make it into the chapters on heat, fluids, electricity and magnetism, and light.

The gecko is similar to some other animals featured in Furry Logic in that scientists have used its physics powers as a model for developing their own technology, making “Geckskin” to help us shin up vertical glass walls. Researchers investigating the harlequin mantis shrimp, for example, have copied the structure of its shell to make impact-resistant panels for aircraft, and designers of micro-air-vehicles are scrutinizing insect flight.

But overall the book is not about the technology inspired by animals. Instead, the animals themselves are the stars of the show, exploiting physics – even if they're not aware of it – to eat, drink, stay warm, communicate or move. Sometimes the physics is simply about attracting a mate. Peacocks woo female peahens by shaking their tail feathers and emitting a sound so low in frequency that we humans can't hear it. They're like an even deeper version of soul crooner Barry White.
Visit the Furry Logic website.

--Marshal Zeringue