Sunday, July 05, 2009

Laws, Damn Laws, and Statistics

This post goes out to my number one fan, Mallory. She is my hall of fame.

A lot of really popular bloggers take great pains to generalize the woman of current infatuation in case she, at some point, is no longer the object of affection.

I am a better blogger because I don't do that. Also because I'm not planning on ever being infatuated with anyone besides her. Getting to the point, I have requested that all three of my readers (Yes. It's official. I have three readers!) suggest topics for me to write about.

One more thing in Mallory's favor is that she was the first to send in a topic request: bumble bees. Especially the ones that shouldn't be physically able to fly.

It turns out that this myth is untrue. Big surprise, right? Aren't most myths eventually shown to be untrue? Like religion? Oh wait. People still believe in that.

Here's the synopsis: Given the physics of a bumble bee's mass compared to the size of its wings and the rate at which they are observed to flap, no bumble bee ought to be able to fly. It's science, dammit. It's even physics, which is a real science, unlike number theory or the multiplication of infinities.

This sounds really good, right? We observe reality and use science to describe what we see. It's perfectly normal, and it's always right, because that's what the scientific method does. It makes you right.

So we have these laws that tell us that bumble bees can't fly. For additional proof, I will point out that the Bumble Bee character didn't fly in either of the transformers movies. Even Michael Bay knows that bumble bees don't fly. He doesn't know that Bumble Bee was a yellow VW bug from the 60s (and not a late model Camero with racing stripes, you fucking corporate shill), but he knows that he doesn't fly.

So what that means is that both science and Hollywood know that bumble bees can't fly, even with amazing CGI. The laws of physics and the damn laws of blockbuster moviemaking are solid here.

No one is arguing with that. Except maybe me. Because I have statistics on my side.

I am quite sure that I have seen bumble bees fly. I would give it an r-squared of at least 95%. That's a hefty power level for those of you who don't dig on stats. It's good enough for J.D. Power & Associates, The Nielsen Company, and Forrester.

If I ever saw a bumble bee that couldn't fly, I wouldn't call it a bee. I would step on it without fear of it stinging me. It would lose its bee-ness if it couldn't fly. That's a part of what being a bee is. It can fly.

Without getting into too much weirdness, I want to talk for a moment about "thing-ness". This is normally a subject that only philosophers deal with, and I'm no philosopher. But it really wants to be talked about. What is the defining characteristic of an object that presents itself as a member of a class? Or is there one? Are their many that combine to represent a class-member?

Where do you define what a tree is as opposed to a weed? They both have leaves, bark, need water, engage in that oh-so-sensuous photosynthesis. One could be smaller, but relative to what? (I just rhymed photosynthesis.)

How do you define a tree-ness? (It's not an accident that "tree-ness" rhymes with "bee-ness" because I'm that smart, and I think before I write.)

What is the essential threshold that makes you identify something as a tree rather than a weed?

I won't claim to have seen a representative sample of all bumble bees. But my thought is that part of the definition of "bumble bee" is that you are either a yellow VW bug from the 60s or you can fly. I have been stung by enough flying bumble bees to make me feel like it's a representative sample.

But upon close inspection it seems that all this is an argument in favor of stats over science. It's not.

It just turned out that the science was wrong. The models that said that bumble bees can't fly were based on a fixed-wing scenario. It turns out that a bumble bee's wings are not rigid. Which anyone who's been stung by and subsequently killed a bumble bee could tell you.

There's what's called a leading-edge vortex created by the flexible nature of a bumble bee's wings, and that is what allows them to fly.

My analysis: bumble bees can fly. Thank you for coming up with an explanation, Science.


Anonymous said...

Michael Bay did know that Bumble Bee was a yellow VW Bug. It was felt that a yellow Bug did not convey the necessary kickassity, so they changed him to a Camaro. Which, by the way, you misspelled.

You also wrote this:
"Are their many that combine to represent a class-member?"



MacViolinist said...

I was drunk when I made that mistake. If you tempt me, I'll do it again.

Or maybe I'll hire you to be my editor.