Jul 192012

NYC LightningThe storm that passed through NYC late this afternoon brought back visions of Colorado, the Plains and the Rockies from my trip a few weeks back. We got everything but a tornado and at the worst possible time – evening rush hour. The City’s antiquated drainage and sewer systems simply cannot handle large volumes of water so it went everywhere but it was supposed to go.

One might think that for all our technology . . . we could do better, but nature will have its own say in this. Much of the subway system is below the waterline of the NY Harbor and East River which means that NYC pumps out some 13 million gallons of water a day from the underground tunnels (of course, it doesn’t help that they basically built the # 2 and # 3 lines in Harlem right through a river bed). That’s 13 million gallons when nothing is falling out of the sky – and when it does, the water just has no place to go. Sometimes we get waterfalls in the subway stations, and other times, geysers shoot up from who knows what subterranean spaces that lurk below the platforms.

It was probably fun for some of the tourists but for the rest of us, it was a horrifying commute. So crowded that I couldn’t even take a few photos in the Times Square station. So photo and video (of the Penn Station 34th St subway platform) are from the Gothamist.

I suppose someday this will all seem so quaint and hilarious - like dodging horses and buggies in the 19th century. But it will take a lot to fund the infrastructure improvements that would make a real change  . . . so for now, nature will have its way and the City will temporarily grind to halt.

Jun 042012
Mosquitoes and Raindrops

Mosquitoes and Raindrops

This might not seem self-evident as a philosophy of life, but hear me out for a minute – the way a mosquito survives falling raindrops. Think about it – raindrops are up to 50 times the weight of a mosquito and yet the insects are apparently never killed by rain. Try imagining us in an environment where objects that much heavier fell from the sky all at once. We’d be lucky to last a day while dealing with a light rain and would never survive a downpour.

How do they do it? They don’t resist. They literally go with the flow, becoming one with the raindrop. Merge and fall with the rain.

But it’s more complicated than that as once they are part of the raindrop, they must quickly separate from it before it hits the ground. I’m no fan of mosquitoes but this is an incredibly well orchestrated ballet that’s been going on right before our eyes. So read on.

A research project at the Georgia Institute of Technology finally figured out how to film mosquitoes as they were hit by raindrops. The report, summarized in BBC News provides the details:

This showed that their bodies put up so little resistance that, rather than the drop of water stopping in a sudden, catastrophic splash, the mosquito simply combined with the drop and the two continued to fall together. . . .

. . . . I hope this will make people think a little bit differently about rain,” said lead researcher David Hu.

“If you’re small, it can be very dangerous. But it seems that these mosquitoes are so small that they’re safe.”

Dr Hu is interested in understanding completely the “tricks” that insects use to survive being so small.

After repeated attempts at what he described as the most difficult game of darts ever, he and his colleagues managed to hit flying mosquitoes with drops of water and capture footage of the result.

Each droplet was between two and 50 times the weight of a mosquito, so what they saw surprised them.

Describing the the results, Dr Hu cited the Chinese martial art of Tai chi.

“There is a philosophy that if you don’t resist the force of your opponent, you won’t feel it,” he explained.

“That’s why they don’t feel the force; they simply join the drop, become one item and travel together.”

When a moving object crashes into another, it is the sudden halt that produces a damage-causing force. For example, when a car hits a wall at 30mph, the stationary wall and the car have to absorb all of the energy carried by that moving car, causing a great deal of damage.

The trick for a mosquito is that it hardly slows the raindrop down at all, and absorbs very little of its energy.

Surviving the collision though, is not the end of the drama for a tiny insect. It has to escape from its watery cocoon before the droplet smashes the insect into the ground at more than 20mph.

This is where the insect’s body, which is covered in water-repellent hairs, seems to give it another crucial survival technique.

Every mosquito studied in this experiment managed to separate itself from the water drop before it hit the ground. 

So Tai chi in nature – no surprise there, of course.

And if there’s a philosophical lesson here it’s this: don’t resist overwhelming force. Go with it, but just long enough to survive. And then separate yourself off again before it brings you down. Merge – fall together – release; merge – fall together – release. Survive . . . and even thrive in face of overwhelming force. The very force the species needs as the wetter it is, the more it breeds.