GPS Goes Radical

September 20, 2010

Torah Kachur

GPS saves marriages.  No more arguing over when to stop to ask for directions, which turn was wrong and why, oh why, doesn't he just listen.  However, GPS machines are cumbersome and have seriously irritating voice overs.  If only we could have a natural compass, or at least be able to read a basic one. 



Migratory birds accomplish a feat of nature unparalleled by anything else - their epic migrations can span continents in search of better weather.  Since the 70's it has been known that birds can orient themselves according to Earth's magnetic field, simply by tilting their head in two directions, they can figure out north vs south.  But how?


Most birds navigate by something Einstein himself called "spukhafte Fernwirkung"...also known as 'spooky'.  Except saying "spukhafte Fernwirkung" is way funnier.  This spooky phenomenon is not Big Bird's ghost, but rather is quantum entanglement.


Electrons are tiny particles in an atom that spin around the nucleus and have a negative charge, if they are charged they can orient in a magnetic field.  But, most 'normal' atoms have electrons that come in pairs - and these pairs spin in opposite orientations - effectively cancelling eachother out.  Which is good, because otherwise we'd be constantly tethered to a magnetic pole. 


Some special atoms, called free radicals, don't have a full set of electrons and can react quickly with other molecules.  In particular, when two free radicals come together, an all-out party starts, especially when the electrons are spinning in the same direction.  Upon merging, one electron has to change direction which is not an easy feat, and much more difficult when an external magnetic field is applied.


Most migratory birds, like European robins, have free radicals in their brains that can collide and 'sense' the very weak magnetic field of Earth. 


In other words, birds use spooky ways to be radical.  And here I thought they just flew to warmer weather, like Canadians to Palm Springs.



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