The unexpected link between music and mosquitoes — Interdisciplinary lessons from a story that started at Falling Walls 2015

In the fall of 2015, science writers from as far away as Brazil, Nigeria, and Indonesia converged on Berlin for the Falling Walls Science Journalism Fellowship. I came from my home base in Boston, and over the course of a few packed days in November, I encountered new ideas from across the sciences and the world.

One year later, a seed planted at Falling Walls is finally about to bear fruit: I’m finishing a story for Mosaic magazine about the surprisingly broad applications of a simple principle in entomology. Much like the conference, this story has introduced me to a dazzling range of people and places—including a computer scientist in Berlin, an epidemiologist in New York, and a group of engineers and entomologists in Tanzania.

For me, the story started with a short presentation at the Falling Walls Lab—a tightly-scheduled, highly competitive day of insights from young researchers. During a talk by Alem Gebru, who was then a PhD student based in South Africa, I learned that every species of insect flaps its wings at a different speed. In other words, an insect’s wing-beat is like a species fingerprint. What’s more, the wing-beat frequency is often audible, which means a careful listener can identify insects using sound.

After speaking with Gebru, I decided to dive deeper into the subject,

and my reading led me into the past. I discovered that a Robert Hooke, a British natural philosopher, used the buzzing of flies to identify species in the 17th century. A Finnish entomologist and composer, Olavi Sotavalta, revived this method in the mid-20th century. Today, scientists use the same basic principle for mosquito traps, population research, and studies of insect mating and communication.

One reason that wing-beat research holds so much promise is that, for centuries, entomology was a largely visual science. It’s no accident that the word still conjures up images of insects pinned to a board in a dusty display case. Only recently did sound become a major component of entomological research. Scientists like Hooke and Sotavalta were ahead of their time, because they were able to build on knowledge of music and hearing.

Too often, scientific research is walled off into separate disciplines, preventing collaboration between different communities. Music theorists and entomologists don’t usually spend much time together—and if the case of wing-beat teaches us anything, maybe they should. Tight-knit, specialised communities can discover remarkable things, but sometimes it takes teamwork to apply and extend those discoveries. I’m looking forward to Falling Walls 2016, because it’s one of the places where this kind of exchange can take place.

 

Daniel Gross will be live blogging from the Falling Walls Conference on 9 November. Follow him here.

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