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It's trigonometry's best kept secret!

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On a rainy night last month, in an ancient hall down a hidden alleyway in the centre of London, Bernard Silverman, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Home Office, revealed a surprising secret... ancient mathematics is at the heart of a very modern game of hide and seek.

Foraging ants have a hard life, embarking on long and arduous trips several times a day, until they drop dead from exhaustion. The trips are not just long, they also follow complex zig-zag paths. So how do ants manage to find their way back home? And how do they manage to do so along a straight line? Their secret lies in a little geometry.

Quantum mechanics is usually associated with weird and counterintuitve phenomena we can't observe in real life. But it turns out that quantum processes can occur in living organisms, too, and with very concrete consequences. Some species of birds use quantum mechanics to navigate. And as Plus found out at a recent conference, studying these little creatures' quantum compass may help us achieve the holy grail of computer science: building a quantum computer.

The words quantum physics are usually associated with the weirder end of physics, including strange phenomena like superposition or quantum entanglement, the "spooky action at a distance" as Einstein called it. But it turns out that quantum mechanical processes occur in living systems too. Some species of birds use quantum mechanics to navigate and studying how they do it might actually help us with building quantum computers.

When insects go foraging, they zoom off from their nest in complex zig-zag paths. How do they manage to find their way back home? And how do they manage to do so along a straight path? These questions are explored in an exhibit at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, currently taking place at the Southbank Centre in London.

Geoff Wilson is an air traffic controller for the Royal Air Force. Recently back from Kabul in Afghanistan, he tells Plus how logical thinking under pressure is crucial in his job.
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