The Aerodynamics of Velvet: What People Can Be taught from Owls

Lambert right here: And now for one thing utterly totally different….

By Jackie Higgins, who has labored for Oxford Scientific Movies for over a decade, together with Nationwide Geographic, PBS Nova, and the Discovery Channel. She has additionally written, directed, and produced movies on the BBC Science Division. Cross-posted from Alternet.

To the traditional Greeks, the owl symbolized knowledge, however the Romans noticed it as an evil omen. Their myths inform of an owl-like strix that stalked the evening and preyed on human flesh. Ovid’s poem Fasti describes how such a demon slipped into the nursery of the sleeping prince Proca and was discovered hunched over the cradle, sucking the new child’s blood. This supernatural owl modified over time. In Italian, strix grew to become strega, that means witch; in Romanian, strigoi is a vampire; and, in Macbeth, Shakespeare as soon as extra recast the owl as ‘the deadly bellman’ whose shriek summons King Duncan’s demise. Like its legendary counterparts, the good grey owl, Strix nebulosa, inhabits the shadows. It lives within the icy north, within the dense, darkish conifer forests of Russia, Alaska, and Canada. By evening, it hunts. Scythe-like tal­ons and hooked, knife-sharp beak make the good grey owl a fearsome predator. By day, it stays hidden. Though one of many largest of its variety, its dusky and mottled plumage blends with the tree branches to atomize the hen’s silhouette, making it as nebulous and insubstantial as mist. Furthermore, on a nonetheless moonlit evening the place snow blankets the panorama and deadens sound, the owl swoops on its quarry and barely breaks the silence.

The quietness of the owl’s flight is unmatched; its wing beat makes a sound so delicate that it’s almost imperceptible. “Whereas we’ve recognized this for hundreds of years,” mentioned Professor Nigel Peake of the College of Cam­bridge, “what hasn’t been recognized is how owls are capable of fly in silence.” His laboratory is one of some all over the world making an attempt to be taught from this avian acoustic stealth. For years, the main focus had been the feathers alongside the wing’s main and trailing edges. These on the entrance have tiny stiff barbs that time ahead just like the tooth of a comb, whereas these on the again are versatile and fringed. They work collectively to interrupt up, then easy the air currents as they movement over and off the wing, damping down any noisy turbulence. Just lately Peake homed in on a 3rd ele­ment: the wing’s luxuriant contact. “We had been among the many first to consider the aerodynamics of this velvet,” he informed me. In 2016, he collabo­rated with scientists in America for a more in-depth have a look at the sleek floor of wings from numerous owl species, together with the good grey. They noticed that the birds’ major feathers had been lined with a millimeter of fantastic fluff.

“Microscope pictures of the down present it consists of hairs that type a construction much like that of a forest,” Peake defined. “The hairs ini­tially rise nearly perpendicular to the feather floor however then bend over within the movement route to type a cover.” This Lilliputian ‘forest’ reduces stress fluctuations and turbulence dramatically because the air flows over the wing. The researchers, funded by the U.S. Nationwide Science Basis and the U.S. Workplace of Naval Analysis, recreated this topography in plastic. Testing their prototype in a wind tunnel, they discovered it lowered sound so properly that they patented the de­signal. This discovery guarantees not merely stealthier surveillance plane or submarines but in addition a big drop in on a regular basis noise air pollution from, say, wind generators, laptop followers, and even the passenger planes day by day crisscrossing the planet.

“Owls have a lot to show us about mak­ing our personal world quieter,” mentioned Peake. “No different birds have wings that scatter sound so their prey can’t hear them coming.” The good grey is neither seen nor heard, and this pure specter additionally appears endowed with a supernatural sense. From a distance of some 30 meters (100 toes), it could possibly pinpoint mice or voles with uncanny precision, even these hidden beneath mounds of virgin snow.

Scientific analysis has coaxed the owl from the shadows and restored her to Athene, the Greek goddess of knowledge. By way of this creature, we be taught what it means to listen to: not merely to detect sounds however to create wealthy and perspectival soundscapes. We uncover our expertise for discerning whispers of whispers, then finding and layering them to construct cathedrals of sound. The silent hen additionally guides us towards making this world a greater place: whether or not by means of redesigning know-how to subdue undesirable noise or bettering the lives of these much less lucky. “I’m simply as deaf as I’m blind,” wrote the American deaf-blind activist Helen Keller to her physician in 1910. “The issues of deafness are deeper and extra advanced, if no more essential, than these of blindness. Deafness is a a lot worse misfortune.” The owl sits on the shoulder of the blind, bearing the reward of earsight. Sooner or later, alongside her wider avian household, she might also supply others the reward of sound.

This excerpt is from Sentient: How Animals Illuminate the Surprise of Our Human Senses, by Jackie Higgins (Atria Books, 2022) and was produced for the net by Earth | Meals | Life, a mission of the Unbiased Media Institute.

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