Raindrops Keep Fallling…

I’ve always loved this passage in the introduction to M.F.K Fisher’s  memoir-cum-essay-collection The Gastronomical Me:

People ask me:  Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, and love, the way others do?

One paragraph later, she replies:

The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry.  But there is more than that.  I tseems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.  So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writig about love and the hunger for it, and wormth and the love of it and the hunger for it….and then the warmth and ricghess of hunger satisfied….and it is all one. [ellipses n the original]

People don’t often ask me why I write about science, and not politics or economics or culture or war…the way others do.

But I’ve asked it of myself, and I find myself lining up with Fisher.*  Science is so utterly intertwined with how we live that to write about its history, its discoveries, its many discontents,  implications, way of thinking, is to interrogate politics, culture, conflict, philosophy and everything else…food included.

But still, writing about science is not just a sneaky way to comment on Republican anti-rationality or whatever; it’s not just a means to another end.  I’ve written a book about the science of climate change, and though that book is as much about politics — and human nature — as it is about carbon chemistry and Milankovitch cycles, I remember one encounter I had while researching it.

I was in the woods in mid-New Hampshire in October or so, a research forest, walking around with the scientist who’d spent a couple of decades at least measuring everything he could about that ecosystem.  We were talking about acid rain and the changes he’d been able to document, and all that you’d expect in such a conversation, and then he stopped in his tracks at a little jog in the trail.  “That’s an ash tree,” he said, pointing to what was clearly an old friend.  It was desert-highway straight, tall, in fine health.  “These are one of my favorites,” he said.  “They make baseball bats out of these, which is very satisfying to me.”

Which is to say that there is simple pleasure to be had in the scientist’s life, or better, for most of us who aren’t practicing researchers, in a science-infused view of life.  Sometimes, there’s just the fun of the imagination leaping from the forest to the diamond; sometimes it’s the joy of the puzzle;  or the adrenaline rush of the extraordinary (did you know a wolverine can bring down a moose?  I didn’t until I read this);or — and this is what I think first drew me into the story — it’s simply those moments when science offers up a glimpse of pure, disinterested, astonishing beauty.

Like this one:

blue morpho

This image was made with the help of a friend and sometime co-blogger of mine, Dr. James Bales, assistant director of MIT’s Edgerton Center and a master of high speed photography.  It shows a drop of water striking the wing of a a blue morpho butterfly.  It came about in the context of the work of a group of researchers at or recently of MIT who have been studying how to reduce the contact time between water and hydrophobic surfaces.  Cutting the interval during with sprays of water remain on such surfaces matters to applications like preventing icing on aircraft wings.

It turns out that engineering surfaces with tiny ridges does the trick — so far, the team has managed to reduce contact time by 40%, using surface configurations that can be achieved with readily available tools.  More details here.

That’s all well and good — in fact, better than.  As someone who flies pretty regularly out of Logan Airport, I’m all for anything that erodes the threat of icing.

But why the butterfly?

As Jim tells it, the group knew that they had, in essence, reinvented something nature’s been doing for a long time:  what you see happening on the blue morpho’s wing above is exactly what engineered ridges on aluminum can accomplish.  And the researchers wanted to express that realization in a way that acknowledges the elegance thus implied.  Their own images were more useful than grand, and that’s where Jim came in, with the results you see above…**

…which are to me, before anything else, simply beautiful.

From time to time I do ask myself why write about science.  An answer, not the only one, nor the whole of it, can be seen above.***

*People also rarely — never — juxtapose me with Fisher, but that’s another kettle of fish.  I read her; I get to quote her.

**For those of you who like to think about such things, Jim says that “The tricky bit is getting the lighting just right (involved finding the right angles between strobe, wing, and lens, along with a mirror on the far side of the wing from the strobe to get a good fill light) and getting the timing right.”  (That, by the way, is what good photographers say.  The tricky bits are you know, everything.)

For the ubergearheads among us, Jim reports that the image was made with a Nikon D700, mounting a 70-180mm lens (presumably Nikon’s old macro unit), with a 1.4 teleconverter, a StopShot trigger unit (from Cognysis, in the US) and an Ultra Micro Flash from LaserScribe (an outfit in the UK) which has a flash duration of approximately 10 microseconds.

***Two more images for your delectation can be found below the jump.

All images: credit A. T. Paxson, K. Hounsell, J. W. Bales, J. C. Bird & K. Varanas, used by permission.

blue morpho 2

blue morpho 3


35 replies
  1. 1
    Gin & Tonic says:

    Do they still run that course in satisfaction of the undergrad lab requirement? I thought that was practically cheating, but didn’t complain.

  2. 2
    Little Boots says:

    you do go on a bit, but what you say is very true, and rather nicely put.

  3. 3
    srv says:

    I’ve always wondered if icing works differently on fabric skinned aircraft. Please do a study.

  4. 4
    JordanRules says:

    Lovely insight and pictures.

  5. 5
    JordanRules says:

    @Little Boots:
    “you do go on a bit”

    Ha! As opposed to, say…short repetative bursts. ;)

  6. 6
    Little Boots says:


    yes, now that you mention it.

  7. 7
    Little Boots says:


    no, actually, you’re right. that was silly.

    nice post.

  8. 8
    Little Boots says:

    well that was thread killer.

    sorry, tom.

  9. 9
    jenn says:

    Wow, anazing photos. Thanks for sharing them!

  10. 10
    jenn says:

    Ok, that would be aMazing, not aNazing. Now I’m trying to think up a definition for the latter, and am waffling between something to do with noses or Nazis…

  11. 11
    JordanRules says:

    Even though I don’t think working in IT is my passion or life’s work per se I do actively seek out moments that amaze me. They are so easy to let slip by, but validation is there.

  12. 12
    NotMax says:

    So Douglas Adams got it bollixed up, then, and the ultimate answer is not 42, but rather steel wool.

  13. 13
    Jim Bales says:

    Gin & Tonic:
    In fact, Strobe Project Lab (MIT subject 6.163) is still an Institute Lab, and any student can take it to satisfy MIT’s requirement that each graduate must take at least one lab class. When did you take it?

    Jim Bales

  14. 14
    Jim Bales says:

    Should anyone want to try to take images like these at home, go for it! A good starting point for DYI hi-speed photography is Dr. Loren Winter’s site http://www.hiviz.com, particularly his “activity guidebook”.

    Jim Bales

  15. 15
    Gian says:

    has someone been watching the “wild kratts” and learning about “creature powers”? (for older parents this is the new PBS show by the guys who did zaboomafoo.

    it’s part live action, part animation, in the animated parts the brothers wear “creature power suits” which give them the abilities of the featured animal or animals of the show.

  16. 16
    divF says:

    Several thoughts this brings to my mind:

    (1) Fisher is one of my four favorite writers (all Californians), ones I read and re-read with unabated pleasure and delight. The Gastronomical Me is my favorite of her works. Food, love, vivid personalities, and terrible personal loss, all intertwined in one memoir that covers her life only through her early 30’s.

    (2) A number of years ago, I made my only foray into the popular press, by reviewing “Cats’ Paws and Catapults: Mechanical Worlds of Nature and People” by Stephen Vogel. Vogel compares the way humans perform engineering design and the way that nature “does engineering design”. It’s a great introduction to bioengineering, and engineering in general.

    (3) Computer simulation has expanded science into another dimension. Detailed physical theories can be translated into detailed computer simulations, to the point where you can make pointwise comparisons in space and time between theory and experiment. Every experiment I see like these makes me want to rush out and build a computer simulation for it. Between the theory and experiment is a whole slew (stew?) of mathematical issues that one must keep in mind, the successful resolution of which gives simulation its fidelity and elegance.

  17. 17
    Joel says:

    Wow, awesome stuff.

  18. 18
    trollhattan says:

    Henceforth I shall backpack resplendent in my butterfly-wing raingear, Goretex be damned. Also, too, my shelter.

    Good stuff, Tom. I wonder how it relates to laminar flow and the patterned surfaces used on racing yacht hulls, swimmers skinsuits, etc.?

    The photos are mindbogglingly cool.

  19. 19

    Thank you for writing about science, please continue to do so.

  20. 20
    Yatsuno says:

    There are other considerations in wing design, such as would a textured pattern affect lift and drag to the point that the ridges render the wing ineffective or cost too much in efficiency to be practicable. It’s a very intriguing idea though. Boeing might be calling soon.

  21. 21
    handy says:

    how plus are you so far little boots?

  22. 22
    ruemara says:

    I love these shots. They look wonderful. And I like your analysis of the reason to do things. It works for me. Plus, I sold an expensive batman toy and got the recalcitrant, mean, psycho roommate kitty to play a little. Now if I can just sell the Robin Dragster, I’d be a happy woman. Happier woman.

  23. 23

    @Yatsuno: We likely already know the answer to that. Countless times more research has gone into wing research than into surface contact. It’s unlikely that small ridges would have an impact on lift – they can be put either parallel or perpendicular to airflow.

    More importantly is whether those ridges still work when the water is hitting the wing at terminal velocity. My guess is that whatever benefit the ridges are playing relative to surface tension get blown all to hell at 600MPH.

    Beyond that, the other three questions the ridges would prompt are:

    1) do they accumulate dirt at a higher rate, both negating the effect of the ridge and adding to the mass of the wing?
    2) can the wing be manufactured at a reasonable cost? Modern wings are still crudely manufactured.
    3) do the ridges eliminate the possibility of painting the plane? Branding is money, and both airlines and aircraft manufacturers are desperate for money.

  24. 24
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    When will Balloon Juice start offering drone delivery?

    “Now delivered by drones” would make a good tag line anyway.

  25. 25
    Fred says:

    The way all of the shown drops split into almost perfect symmetry is interesting. And beautiful.

  26. 26
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @Fred: Yes, that was what I noticed. Especially in the last photo, the water drop actually looks like a butterfly. Way too meta to contemplate at this hour, but gorgeous.

  27. 27
    JPL says:

    The article and the photographs are one of the reasons, I frequent this site.

  28. 28
    PredictableFunk says:

    I was once taking a graduate math class in non-Euclidean geometries. One day, the professor, a small, energetic Indian woman, walked in and said, “And today, we will be studying the Póincare Plane. Why? Because it is beautiful.” She said it with a conviction that immediately pre-butted any counter argument. And then she showed us why it is beautiful.

  29. 29
    Elizabelle says:


    Biting. Who are the other three favorite writers, all Californians? Thank you.

  30. 30
    Elizabelle says:

    Tom: gorgeous photography.

    Man accomplishes nothing aesthetic that nature has not already excelled at.

  31. 31
    divF says:

    Yes, I left that one out to see if anyone would bite – thank you. The other three are

    Philip K. Dick
    Joan Didion
    Ursula LeGuin

    It is not simply that they (along with Fisher) were writers from California, but that they were formed by living in California in ways that affected their work. I like to think that there were moments in the 1950’s when all three were in Berkeley (where I’ve spent my adult life) at the same time.

    I seem to recall that our host for this thread is from here, as well.

  32. 32
    Guest says:

    “That’s an ash tree,” he said, pointing to what was clearly an old friend. It was desert-highway straight, tall, in fine health. “These are one of my favorites,” he said. “They make baseball bats out of these, which is very satisfying to me.”

    When I grow up I want to be a tree
    Want to make my home with the birds and the bees
    And the squirrels, they can count on me
    When I grow up to be a tree

    If I should fall in storm or slumber
    Please don’t turn me into lumber
    I’d rather be a Louisville slugger
    Swinging for the seats…

    From the song “Branching Out” by John Gorka


  33. 33

    This is a delightful treatise and stunning photography. Science for the ultimate win.

  34. 34
    Jim Bales says:

    @Fred writes: “The way all of the shown drops split into almost perfect symmetry is interesting. And beautiful.”

    And, in this case, intentional — we tried to get the drops to hit squarely on the vein in the butterfly’s wing, which causes the 50-50 split. When we hit off-center, there was a large lobe on one side and a small lobe on the other. As long as the incoming drop hit a vein, it quickly became two separate drops.

    BTW — Why the middle of the three images has two threads connecting the halves instead of one is a question for the authors (Kripa Varanassi, Jacy Bird, Adam Paxson) — my expertise is the photography, not the fluid mechanics!


  35. 35
    Elizabelle says:


    Thank you, thank you for answering. Checked back to see if you did.

    I’ve read a few items by each author.

    What are the “don’t miss” works?

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