Physics of birds and bees – sincerely, Albert Einstein

In 2019, a group of RMIT researchers were in the midst of publishing a series of grand discoveries about how bees use their brains, when they got an unexpected surprise from Albert Einstein.

Led by Scarlett Howard as part of her PhD, the team had shown that, despite their small size, bees could understand the concept of zero, and even perform simple arithmetic.

“We were actually able to show that they could discriminate numbers above 4, so they could do things like 4 versus 5, which is a very hard discrimination to make,” says Howard, now a postdoctoral research fellow at Deakin University.

The research caught the attention of the media and was shared worldwide. Shortly after, Howard’s supervisor, Adrian Dyer, received a message from a widow on the other side of the globe.

“A lady in the UK heard about it and wrote to me directly, because I was the corresponding author, and said ‘I have a very unusual letter in my possession, which was written by Albert Einstein to my late husband’,” says Dyer.

The lady – Judith Davys, wife of Glyn Davys, who lived from 1925 to 2011 – said that the letter discussed the same themes Dyer and Howard were now investigating. She asked Dyer if he’d like to examine it.

“Of course I was quite interested.”

Davys sent the letter over, and after verifying with the Albert Einstein Archives that it had actually come from Einstein, Dyer started to do some research on its genesis.

Written in October 1949 and fewer than 100 words, the letter is short but packed with meaning. It was a response to a letter Glyn Davys had sent to Einstein, the content of which is unknown but can be guessed at.

Einstein’s letter to Davys

Dear Sir,

I am well acquainted with Mr V. Frisch’s admirable investigations. But I cannot see a possibility to utilize those results in the investigation concerning the basis of physics. Such could only be the case if a new kind of sensory perception, resp. of their stimuli, would be revealed through the behaviour of the bees. It is thinkable that the investigation of the behaviour of migratory birds and carrier pigeons may some day lead to the understanding of some physical process which is not yet known.

Sincerely yours,

Albert Einstein.

“I am well acquainted with Mr. v. Frisch’s admirable investigations,” begins Einstein. By 1949, Karl von Frisch was becoming well-known for the research on bees that would end up winning him a Nobel Prize. He had recently shown that honeybees can use the polarisation of sunlight to navigate, and news on this research had made it into newspapers in the United Kingdom. Dyer and his collaborators believe that Davys, who had worked on radar as an engineer in the Royal Navy, had read about this research and written to Einstein asking if he was aware of it.

Einstein had, in fact, attended a lecture by von Frisch earlier that year and briefly met the man afterwards. So he knew that bees could distinguish the polarisation of light and navigate – an interesting physical concept, but with little application at the time.

This small letter excited the RMIT researchers, because it was exactly what their team had done with bees.

“His suggestion is [that] new behaviours might reveal new ways of looking at physics,” summarises Dyer.

“This is something that is an active field of research today,” says Andrew Greentree, a physicist at RMIT who has worked with Howard and Dyer.

“I’m attending conferences where people talk about the mechanisms for magneto-sensing in birds, and people are also interested in magneto-sensing in dogs and humans and insects.”

There’s still a lot to be proven in the field (particularly around magneto-sensing), but theoretical physicists are rapidly becoming interested in how animals navigate and communicate – hence Greentree’s involvement in the project. “Understanding how bees [navigate] with a tiny little brain using far less energy than we have in our standard mobile phones is a really important technological challenge,” he says.

Greentree has been working with Dyer’s team for six or seven years, but in Einstein’s time, it was unusual for physicists to spot applications from biology and zoology.

“For a physicist, that’s a really radical thing to be suggesting,” says Greentree.

How does it feel to have your work predicted by Einstein, 70 years prior? How might this bee research be viewed in 70 years’ time?

It’s hard to tell, but Dyer, Howard and Greentree all hope it encourages more interdisciplinary research.

Howard thinks there will be more interest in the growing field of insect cognition. “The honeybee is obviously a really great model, but we don’t know what other great models might also be out there at this stage, and I think in 70 years we’ll see a huge amount of research going into looking at how other insects can help us in our everyday lives as well as how they’re important in their own environments.”

“Every time I’ve worked with Andrew I’ve learned something new, and that goes both ways,” says Dyer.

“I think the fact that Einstein was potentially interested in this will probably capture the attention of some pretty senior physicists to maybe just read a few more papers on what insects and animals can do.”

Greentree agrees. “To have Einstein talking to von Frisch, who is a radically different kind of scientist […] That’s convincing me that I should be someone who’s reaching out more to people in other disciplines.”

He also adds that it “reminds me of our public service, the requirement on us to actually respond to the general public.”

“[Einstein] was a famously prolific writer,” he says. “He would write to essentially anyone. He would try to reply to everyone who wrote to him.”

“We have a responsibility to engage with people, at some level, and to assist wherever we can, to share knowledge.”

A paper analysing Einstein’s letter is published in the Journal of Comparative Physiology A.

Einstein letter
Credit: Dyer et al. 2021, J Comp Physiol A / The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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