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‘Fly’-ing to Safety

A look at some current research that merits a raised eyebrow or a painful grin.

You sidle up, catlike, concealing the fly swatter, hoping your shadow won’t give you away, not when the blasted bug has finally stopped buzzing, right there on the wall, at a reachable height, if you can just catch it off-guard … THWACK! And just as you condescend to check the swatter — for surely no beast could survive such a hammer blow — you hear the telltale, mocking sound: buzz, buzz, buzz. The fly has lived another day (or two).

How do they get away? A new study from the California Institute of Technology, where researchers analyzed high-resolution, high-speed imaging of fruit flies confronted with a looming swatter, provides the answer. Before the fly actually jumps, its small brain calculates which direction the threat is coming from, formulates an escape plan and moves its legs into the optimal position to spring away. And the fly does this all within about 100 milliseconds.

The videos showed that if the swatter descends from the front, the bug will lean back, extending its legs to push off in reverse. If the threat appears from behind (and flies have a nearly 360-degree field of vision), the fly will move its middle legs back. Facing danger from the side, the fly will keep its middle legs still but lean its body in the opposite direction before taking off.

“When it first notices an approaching threat, a fly’s body might be in any sort of posture depending on what it was doing at the time, like grooming, feeding, walking or courting,” says Michael Dickinson, a professor of bioengineering and author of the paper that appeared this summer in Current Biology. “This means that the fly must integrate visual information from its eyes, which tell it where the threat is approaching from, with mechanosensory information from its legs, which tells it how to move to reach the proper preflight pose.”

So what’s the proper pre-swat pose for a human?

“It is best not to swat at the fly’s starting position but rather to aim a bit forward of that to anticipate where the fly is going to jump when it first sees your swatter,” Dickinson advises. Either that, or break out the Raid.

But Waiter, I Ordered a Pastrami on Rye With Extra Mustard, Hold the Pickles!

The paper “Homogenization and Optimization of Sinusoidal Honeycomb Cores for Transverse Shear Stiffness” appears in the September issue of the Journal of Sandwich Structures and Materials.

From the Mouths of Babes

Sorry, moms and dads, but your child’s first words don’t necessarily indicate which parent is more beloved. Researchers at the University of British Columbia, working with colleagues from Italy and Chile, have found that the human brain may be hard-wired to recognize repetition patterns. They used optical imaging techniques to trace the brain activities of 22 newborns who heard recordings of made-up words.

Some of the phony words ended in repeating syllables, such as “mubaba” and “penana,” while others featured no repetition (“mubage” and “penaku,” for example). Activity spiked in the temporal and left frontal areas of the newborns’ brains — the language centers for most right-handed adults — when they heard the repetitious words, but there was no response to words with nonadjacent repeating letters. The study was published this summer in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It’s probably no coincidence that many languages around the world have repetitious syllables in their ‘child words’ — baby and daddy in English, papa in Italian and tata (grandpa) in Hungarian, for example,” says postdoctoral fellow and study leader Judit Gervain. “The brain areas that are responsible for language in an adult do not ‘learn’ how to process language during development, but rather, they are specialized — at least in part — to process language from the start.”
None of this, however, explains why our first word was “spaghetti.”

And Finally, the Last Word; or Why It's Not Easy Being a Metrosexual

“The pink walls, throw pillows on the waiting bench, fresh weekly flowers, and cookie samplers further feminize the salon in the eyes of the men. Neil, a 43-year-old white engineer, describes the salon as a ‘fairly feminine atmosphere.’ When I asked him what it is about the salon that makes it ‘feminine,’ he told me that you have to ‘perch’ on a cushioned bench while waiting, ‘and men don’t perch.’” — The University of Southern California’s Kristen Barber, in her paper “The Well-Coiffed Man: Class, Race, and Heterosexual Masculinity in the Hair Salon” in the August issue of Gender & Society

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