'Ants Act as Both a Fluid and a Solid'

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

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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.

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