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Mosquito Beats Cyclist

March 30, 2012

The Citizen Scientist is a segment aiming to communicate the latest science news to you. In surveys, Americans perpetually show an interest in science, yet display a lack of basic science knowledge. This lack of knowledge can lead people to make poor decisions about the education and health of themselves and their children. Lets understand more about the world around us.

CC Image courtesy of Flickr user Steys

Cycling is a potentially dangerous endeavor.  Despite our best efforts of avoidance, accident do happen.  What more can be done?  Where else can we seek out new safety innovations?  Why not look to the insect world for ideas.  Biomimetics is the use of nature, its models, systems, and processes to engineer technology to solve human problems.  An example is water-repellent coating derived from the surface of lotus flowers.  Another is the use of the alternating step patterns of six-legged insect to develop walking robots.  As cyclists, if we want to know how to walk away from a collision, we should look to those who encounter this everyday (but on a much smaller scale).

If you ever tried to collect insects on a rainy day you will return disappointed.  Rain droplets can be deadly for our tiny counterparts.  However, one insect has seeming immunity to the perils of rain.  The mosquito.  Research led by David Hu at the Georgia Institute of Technology may have uncovered a couple techniques that allow the mosquito to continue its journey in the rain.

The first adaptation is due to its hydrophobic surface.  Just like oil, water will be repelled when it touches the mosquito’s tiny hairs.  If rain droplets hit the insect they will bounce off and continue on its way.  No splat, no added weight.  Imagine trying to tread water with all your clothes on, the same idea applies to an insect trying to remain airborne.

But how does the mosquito take the hit and keep on going?  The proportional mass and velocity of a raindrop is like an oncoming mac truck to us.  Can a mosquito actually maneuver and avoid every droplet in a downpour?  No, it cannot.  In fact, it does the opposite.  Rather than fleeing or taking cover, our brave mosquito hits these drops head on.  Here’s why mosquitoes can get away with this: it’s all about mass, or lack of it.  At the moment of impact, the tiny bit of mass of the mosquito is harmlessly tossed aside.  The mosquito spins away off to fly another day.  To see this same principle, we would have to start cycling in space where any collision in a weightless environment would just send us twirling.

So next time there’s a bike-car accident, don’t blame each other.  Instead blame gravity for making this an issue in the first place.  Although we can’t follow the mosquito’s lead on this one, perhaps there are other types of biomimicry worth exploring…

...unfortunately they're sold out of my size.

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