The Bum Of The Flightlebee

You still occasionally hear of the idea that “scientists have proved that bumble bees can’t fly”. The implication is that, therefore, science is rubbish. Naturally enough, the story is most popular among those who hate and fear science. Creationists, fundamentalists, classics scholars and the generally ignorant.

But even those who are sympathetic to scientific enquiry might accept that at one time, or perhaps even now, the science of aerodynamics could not explain bumblebee flight. However, there appears to be no truth whatsoever in this notion. It’s a myth. Nobody has ever been able to track down any actual scientific investigation into bumblebee flight which has “failed”.

BumblebeeAnd even if there was such a study, the conclusion would be something like “Our mathematical analysis did not reproduce the factors observed in real flight, and therefore needs to be replaced by a more advanced theory.”

That’s the way science really works. You create a theory or equation that allows you to calculate the outcome of experiments. And then you compare the outcome with what your theory said. If there’s a discrepancy, you throw away the theory, not the reality.

This is the real power of science: there are no fixed beliefs. Everything is provisional, pending disproof. OK, sometimes, it can take a bit of convincing when a theory that has seemed to work well comes up against new, conflicting evidence. But eventually, reality wins. Someone comes up with a new equation which now fits all known evidence. Until the next time, and so it goes.

Studies of bumblebees show that their rapidly moving wings twist during each cycle of oscillation, and the phenomenon of dynamic stall creates a powerful downward vortex on each flap. The lift produced is several times larger than a straight flapping wing can deliver. Bumblebees can fly.

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