In 1949, a 70-year-old man Albert Einstein sent a message to England-based radar researcher Glyn Davys. The topic wasn’t physics or radar – it was birds and bees and the way those animals sailed.
The letter was published earlier this week in the Journal of Comparative Physiology A, after being shared with the research team by Glyn’s widow, Judith Davys. It’s a reminder that Einstein’s activities went beyond space-time; he was interested in the myriad ways in which physics affected the world around him. (Of course, Einstein had a lot of thoughts beyond physics. The scientist also found the time to write his famous critique of capitalism, an essay titled “Why socialism?”)
Einstein’s thoughts on animal physics came after conversations with Austro-German bee researcher and Nobel Prize winner Karl von Frisch, who gave a lecture on animals at Princeton University the same year that the letter has been written. The text of the short letter follows:
I am well acquainted with the admirable investigations of M. c. Frisch. But I do not see the possibility of using these results in the investigation of the bases of physics. This could only be the case if a new type of sensory perception, resp. of their stimuli, would be revealed by the behavior of the bees. One might think that the study of the behavior of migratory birds and carrier pigeons may one day lead to the understanding of a physical process which is not yet known.
In the letter, Einstein calls von Frisch’s bee research “admirable” and suggests that the study of animal perception may offer clues to new physics. It was an academic riff to the next.
“Seven decades after Einstein proposed that new physics could emerge from animal sensory perception, we are seeing discoveries that advance our understanding of navigation and the fundamentals of physics,” said lead author Adrian Dyer, researcher at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. in a college press release. Dyer’s team reviewed documents confirming that Einstein had met von Frisch in person after von Frisch’s lecture in 1949.
Today we know that animal navigation does indeed involve fascinating physics. Sea turtles orient oneself by detecting magnetic fields. Birds do something similar in a process that appears to involve quantum entanglement – a physical concept discovered by Einstein – and cats have a rufood intake of physics, although that does not prevent them from sitting inside boxes that do not exist.