'Ants Act as Both a Fluid and a Solid'

The physics of ants could inspire robots, roads, and even bridges.

John Mooallem's crazy Times Magazine story about crazy ants (yep, "that’s their actual name") has rightfully spawned some public fascination with the insects that are terrorizing large swaths of the country. But scientists—especially those interested in the physics of fluids—have long been studying crazy ants and their counterparts to learn (and maybe even learn from) their ways. 

"See how the ants drip, like some kind of syrup?" New York Times science writer James Gorman asks in the video above. But ants can also behave like a solid, as we saw in the pictures accompanying Mooallem's article. Researchers—researchers, Gorman notes, doing "serious, ant-ball physics"—press the ants down ... and they spring back. Like some kind of crazypants, crazy-ants marshmallow. 

Which is, if the ants happen to be populating your home or your electronic device, fairly horrifying. But which is also, when it comes to engineering of machines that might mimic the ants' behavior, fascinating. As Gorman explains it: "To flow, the ants move around. To spring back, they hold on to each other." Imagine if that logic were applied to ant-like robots—modular little machines that could assemble into bigger objects, and then disassemble, with ease. Those robots could construct temporary bridges, or temporary roads, or possibly even temporary vehicles. They would behave, like the ants, as "both a fluid and a solid." 

Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Why Is Google Making Human Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors at a world-class life sciences lab are trying to change the way people think about their health.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Videos

Why Is Google Making Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.

Video

How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

Video

The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Technology

Just In