What do ants have to do with quantum electrodynamics?

The story of how ant-watching led to a Nobel Prize in Physics…

A fine man of physics

Ever since I was little, I’ve been fascinated by ants – possibly more than any other creature. I would follow them around everywhere and observe their behaviour for hours on end. Recently, I’ve fallen back in love with ants by discovering YouTube channels dedicated to ant-keeping.

Macro shot of fire ant colony. I think this is stunning. Photo credit: Mikhail Vasilyev via Unsplash

It was to my surprise then (and delight) that Richard Feynman, legendary Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist, shared a deep intrigue for ants.

I’m currently reading his autobiography “Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman!” in which he reminisces over various adventures in life. He dedicates a chapter to recount his stories about watching ants.

quANTum electrodynamics

As an adult, Feynman would watch ants foraging in his house. In his book, he fondly describes the time he investigated how ants’ trails looked so straight. His plan was simple: leave a sugar cube out and wait for ants to come by so that he could trace their trails with different coloured pencils.

What he noticed was that the paths of the initial exploring ants was not straight, but wavy! Then subsequent ants following the trail would incrementally straighten out the path. Being a physicist, he noticed striking similarities in the paths of foraging ants and the path of a particle of light.

Wonderful little critters forming a trail. Photo credit: Alexas_Fotos via Pixabay

This observation inspired many questions like “How do objects with no sense of ‘straightness’ travel in straight lines?”. Feynman’s interpretation of the quantum ‘paths’ of an object was developed after seeing the ants’ foraging patterns, and is our current understanding of how quantum objects behave.

Richard Feynman’s work in the field of quantum electrodynamics would eventually lead him to a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965.

The mathematics of Feynman’s findings are completely out of my depth, but if you’re feeling brave then here’s a blog post going into more detail.

What is this? Physics for ants?

Not only have these little creatures inspired some amazing work in physics, they regularly exploit the physics of their own biology. The best example of this is the red fire ant.

Having evolved from the floodplains of South America, these ants have developed an interesting tactic to keep their colony alive in case of a flood. By linking their bodies together, they take advantage of their water-repellent properties to form an emergency life raft!

Fire ant raft. Photo credit: Douglas Moon via Flickr

Physicists consider a mass of ants to be a material – one that can behave as both a solid and a liquid. If you disturb a clump of ants like the ones pictured above, the ants will actually repair their structure. If you force them through a funnel, they will drip out like honey! No other material has these properties!

The bizarre properties of ants is being emulated by roboticists who think that modular robots are the way to go. Imagine masses of tiny robots forming large structures and are capable self-repair. It goes to show you that you can always look to nature for inspiration.

I hope you can see why I really love ants. They’ve indirectly made contributions to the field of quantum electrodynamics and are still puzzling physicists today with their wacky biology.

14 Responses to “What do ants have to do with quantum electrodynamics?”

  1. Will Long says:

    Thanks Henry! Glad you found it as cool as I did!

  2. Henry Duffield says:

    This is like, unreasonably cool. Ants?! Quantum Physics?! DYNAMIC FLOATING FIRE ANT RAFTS THAT REPAIR THEMSELVES WHEN DISTURBED???? Awesome! Good stuff Will

  3. Will Long says:

    Thanks Owen, and yes, it’s quite a weird connection!

  4. Owen Stanley says:

    Interesting article!, i love the puns that you used in the sub titles and its fascinating how ants could be used to help with something as obscure as physics.

  5. Will Long says:

    Thanks Leo, much appreciated!

  6. Leo Featherstone says:

    Hey Will,
    That was beautifully written. Thank you!

  7. Will Long says:

    Thanks for the comment Natali!

    I think you often find interesting things when looking at nature through the lens of physics!

  8. Will Long says:

    Thanks Stephen!

    I’m glad you liked the post. Enjoy the movie!

  9. Natali says:

    I think it is an pretty interesting topic that there is an different perspective of physics of ants which has been demostrated.

  10. Stephen Yao says:

    Thanks for your post Will! That’s really amazing! I can see your passion on ants, and it’s really keen to know so many crazy things with this little stuff!
    The pictures made me recall one of my favorite movie-Ant Man, I’m gonna watch it again now:)

  11. Will Long says:

    Thanks Danielle!

    It really is. I can’t wait to see how robotics evolves to emulate this behaviour.

    Glad you enjoyed the pun – I chuckled when I came up with it!

  12. Danielle Fong says:

    It’s crazy how ants are able to band together and exhibit these remarkable properties despite their tiny individual sizes!

    I also really enjoyed your pun ‘quANTum’ ! It helped convey your enthusiasm for this topic.

  13. Will Long says:

    Thanks for the comment! In this case it’s purely coincidental. It’s really weird that two completely unrelated systems can exhibit such similar behaviour.

  14. codya says:

    Interesting stuff! so do ants actually have some form of concrete connection to these quantum ‘paths’ you mentioned? (like do they use them in some way?) Or is it all just coincidental?