'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. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Join the Discussion

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

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Video

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."

Video

The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands

Video

'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

More in Technology

Just In