Illustrated By Craig Furlong
When I phoned Kitcherson, I was lashed to the tracks and in the path of a rushing deadline. A vision of Kitchersons contraption had come to me out of the desperate vacuum of mind. As a reporter, I was still just a student, and one who hadnt produced a thing yet that had seen print. But I knew a story with potential when the idea was in front of me.
I had heard Kitcherson speak about this thing two years before. He had played a video showing it in action. In the video, a living fruit fly dangled in front of a glowing, wraparound display screen about 10 inches tall. Rectangular bars drifted one way, then another: Up, down, left, rightacross the screen. A wire glued to the flys back suspended it and held it in place, while the camera alternated between the front and rear of the fly, alternately zooming in and retreating. When Kitcherson turned up the sound, the room filled with buzzing. It was the flyits wings a barely perceptible blur. The device was to convince a fly it was flying when it really wasnt. Display screen and all, the contraption pitched, rolled and yawed in response to any acrobatic whim the fly chose to act out. It divined the flys whims, Kitcherson had said, from the force the fly exerted on the wire. The thing was Kitchersons invention.
What it was good for, I couldnt remember. Whether it proved anything scientifically, I had no idea. As a nascent science writer, under most circumstances, I certainly would have cared. But for a story this kooky, this interesting, it just didnt matter. People would read it, an editor would want it, somewhere.
Kitcherson (not his real name) was a young professor of biology at the University of California, Berkeley. On his Internet web page, his title was Assistant Professor. I knew this to be code for job insecure, and instantly formed a profile of him in my mind. Any year now, Kitcherson would be facing the decision (not his own) that would either make him an eminent professor for life or give him a shove out the door and best wishes for the future. For a young professor, this was an event as ineluctable as death and taxeswhether the inventor of fly virtual reality or notand I figured I had Kitcherson pegged. This was a man who would be overworked and overwhelmed.
I called four times, left a message twice, and emailed once. Now it was only a matter of hours before I would have to present a viable story idea before my classmates, and I wouldnt have another opportunity to phone. I had concluded that Kitcherson was out of town. I dialed his number desultorily and hardly listened as the phone rang. When out of the receiver there sprang a HelloDavid Kitcherson, I was off my guard.
Oh, Hi! I said. Uh...My name is Oliver Baker, who...uh....Ive left you a couple messages?
Oh....right, said Kitcherson.
Im...uh... I said. Welluntil October, I was a graduate student in the biophysics groupand now, actually, Im...uh...doing science journalism.
Since the odds of buttonholing Kitcherson seemed long, I was willing to stoop. Not to lie; but perhaps to exploit the fact that nobody anywhere seems to know what biophysics means. For instance, I didnt mind if to Kitcherson it meant that I was educated about insect flight, or that I had an education that prepared me to understand it (I didnt). Neither would I mind if the words graduate student and my implicit reference to Berkeley ("the biophysics group") tapped into a sense of obligation Kitcherson might feel as a professor (or an inclination for camaraderie he might feel, since having been a graduate student made me a fellow Berkeley scientist, even if of a lowly caste). And I certainly wasnt going to volunteer that I was just a student reporter on a class assignment. My vain hope was that Kitcherson not think of me as a reporter at all.
I told Kitcherson Id heard and liked a talk hed given, and was calling to ask how he would feel about having me write a story on some of his research.
A pause followed, and I began to suspect that Kitcherson didnt feel too good about it.
Sure, said Kitcherson.
Really?! I said.
Kitcherson paused again, and I thought that if I were talking to a reporter who had said that, I would have paused too.
Um...Yeah....Sh-sure he said.
Indeed he was really busy, Kitcherson said. But he had a friend who was a science journalist. In fact, he had a reporter in his family toothe husband of a sister he was very close to.
So I kind of make it a point to make myself available to the press, he said.
A row of cherries assembled in the window of a slot machine in my mind. My grip on the phone receiver slackened, the tension drained from my body, and I sunk deep into my chair. Kitcherson asked me what I wanted to write about, and I did not hesitate:
Fruit-fly virtual reality, I said.
Kitcherson said Oh. That. Thats old.
Old is never good in journalism. That I knew.
How old? I asked.
The experiments were now two years old, Kitcherson said. He added, though, that he had only published them last year.
Although the research had lost its currency to Kitcherson, it wasnt too old to my mindprovided it hadnt landed with a big splash in a national newspaper. I figured the brilliance of fruit-fly virtual reality was visualnot something well conveyed by a type-written press release. And I wagered the newspapers hadnt noticed it.
The Boston Globe did a full-page story on it when it came out Kitcherson said. Thats where my friend worksat the Boston Globe. Shes the one who wrote the article.
Bad, yes, bad, I thought. But the Boston Globe doesnt dictate the attention of the country quite like the New York Times does. I was mulling this over when Kitcherson rushed to point out that the research article had appeared in Science magazine. This meant that the eyes of journalists certainly would have paused on it. In fact, Kitcherson said, Science had written its own news story for the front pages of the same issue.
He was telling me this, I figured, as a way to say so dont think it got in the newspaper just because I have a friend at the Boston Globe. But what it meant to me was: By now this story has crayon marks on it in a dusty third-grade textbook in Cairo.
As I understood Kitcherson, his finding was that wagging drumstick-like appendages behind each wing of a fruit fly function as a pair of miniature gyroscopesso that fruit flies guide themselves the same way that cruise missiles and 747s do.
There was no chance it had gone unappreciated.
Yet it was hasty to abandon a story this good without checking what attention it actually had received. I was planning to write something in-depth. The newspapers certainly might have given the story short shrift. Before I had the chance to pursue such thoughts, however, Kitcherson was talking again.
You know, its really awkward that you should call right now, he said.
Oh, I said. Huh?
We had been talking for several minutes already, and Kitchersons comment struck me as rather oddly timed. I asked if hed prefer that I call him back later.
Oh. No, he said. Its not that.
He elaborated, but I wasnt understanding him.
Its just that... Kitcherson said, weve actually just finished up some other work, which...which I think is really quite important. I mean... I mean...Im really not the kind of scientist who likes to blow his own horn, he said. But, well...Let me just say, I think this is the best thing Ive ever been involved with.
Better than fly gyroscopes?
Really? I said. Id love to hear about it!
Um...well...yeah...and Id love to tell you about it, Kitcherson said. But its just...like I said, its kind of an awkward time.
Because, he said, were actually about to submit it to Science...like...tomorrow, in fact. I actually have the envelope sitting in front of me right now on my desk.
Wow! Really!? I gushed. The Brooklyn Bridge could be mine if I could only afford the price.
Yeah, he said.
And, actually, said Kitcherson, it would be a really great thing for you to write up tooespecially since...What did you say you were studying? Biophysics?
Yes! I proclaimed.
Yeah, so, with your biophysics background... he said.
But its just kind of awkward... said Kitcherson, his voice trailing off.
I did not get it.
Awkward... I echoed.
My thought was: The research is done. The results are off of the computer and onto paper. This is one of those momentsone of those one or perhaps two a yearthat is absolutely not awkward. This is the moment a scientist opens up a beer, talks idly with the lab-matesgoes home early. Unless...and this was the only exception I could think ofunless perhaps on the phone there was a reporter...anyone, really, prepared to listen to what had just emerged after years of anonymous and blistering toil. In that case, at a moment like this, a scientist would lean back in his or her chair, hit the speaker phone button, and talk and talk and talk.
That wasnt what was happening. Oh, the embargo! I exclaimed.
I had been unprofessional. When Science came up, I should have realized immediately. Embargo was in fact authentic journalistic jargon, but it wasnt quite the word. I was rushing to sound as professional as fast as I could, though, and it seemed the right word for that.
I meant the policy that nothing gets into Science if it has premiered elsewhereand that neither does anything in Science get divulged before subscribers magazines are in the mail. Kitcherson would fear that the editors at Science would shred his manuscript and anathematize his name if I were to spill a single bean publicly about his latest findings.
When I realized this I gave Kitcherson everything I had. It came out as a jumble, since the reason that Kitcherson had nothing to worry about I found embarrassing to reveal. But the points were 1) I was not a professional journalist, 2) the only place my story had to appear at any set date was on an obscure Internet web site, which was dedicated to stories by students in my program, 3) that date was far, far offand even negotiable.
I felt relieved after I had gotten all of this out, actually. It was refreshing, as a nobody reporter, to be able to be up-front with someone about it. And, of course, now the story would be mine, too.
Huh, said Kitcherson. Thats interesting, because I...uh...Ive actually helped someone in your position before. Like I said, Im kind of a friend to the press. That doesnt really change anything, though.
Huh? I said.
Its just... said Kitcherson, its just I have a lot of respect for the peer review process. I just think its really essential.
Kitcherson meant the process in which a scientific journal takes candidate manuscripts and sends them around to a few other scientists working in that specialty. The idea is that anybody in a lab coat and goggles can claim that his or her dog understands Shakespeare. Get the experiments past our hand-picked team of skeptics and well start to believe youre talking sense.
Perhaps what Kitcherson was saying was that he was just in the lab-coat-and-goggles stage: That he did not yet deserve to talk to the press. It was a very sober, thoughtful and socially conscientious view to hold, and I had no rebuttal. Yet I couldnt very well let him rattle on like thisin this way that made it seem like he wasnt going to give me the story. I stopped him in the middle of a sentence.
Um...yeah, I said, I understand completely! In fact, I agree! And I really dont think that that will be a problem.
I really didnt. Even if Kitcherson was indeed tortured about promulgating his findings before they received the stamp of peer review, how likely was it really that they were utter garbage? Kitcherson has published in Science. Hes at Berkeley, a prestigious school. He even seems rather self-critical. I reckoned his results were as solid as Hoover Dam.
Anyway, as I hastened to point out, I would be conducting my own peer review (I certainly couldnt take Kitcherson as my sole source on how important his discovery was). Never fear and not to worry, I told him.
It wasnt helping.
I went through the steps again. First one way, then the next. In language colorful and sober. I refused to peter out.
Finally, he bent. O.K., O.K. he said. Well, hold on a minute. Ill describe it to you, then well see.
What it was was a giant robotic fly, said Kitcherson. This was a robot fly that functioned down to the detail like a real fly. It was 60 centimeters2 feetin wingspan. And Kitcherson said it had solved the problem of insect flight.
Then he told me about the problem of insect flight. This was a problem, he said, that had foiled the best attempts of brilliant theoretical minds for decades. Nobody has been able to explain what keeps bugs in the air, Kitcherson saidand that included physicists at supercomputers. Even the supercomputers are only carrying out computations that are approximations to the ones that really apply, he says. The real equations cant be solved. The mathematics is just too hard. He started to use nuclear physics as an analogy, but then he said insect aerodynamics was hardernot to mention unsolved. At least, until now, he said.
This robot fly seemed to me to explain everything. Even enigmas of the fly nervous system were crumbling under the weight of this robot fly. The aerodynamics just made everything about flies transparent, Kitcherson said.
Then Kitcherson said he had to get off the phone.
But, but...would he be comfortable having me write a story about the robot fly? Yes.
Would, would...he be able to make himself available for the amount of time it would take for me to understand this thingthis thing more complicated than nuclear physics? Yes.
Had he really not told any of this to anybody beforenot even at meetings? No.
And was he planning on talking to anybody? No, just me, Kitcherson saidit was my scoop.
When I put down the phone, I said a word I never use: Yow! I said. Yow, yow, yow, yow, yow!
I felt that I had cast into the lake with a wispy thrift-store fishing rod and that now it was bent over with the 100-year old story on the line.
I had 15 minutes to write a pitch"a paragraph that would make the idea seem worthy of a full story. Five minutes was enough. A bugs...the cutting edge of aerodynamics here, a physicists confounded there, a biologist has the answer, and finally giant robot fly, kerplopend of pitch. I wrote it and wondered how soon Hollywood would be at my doorstep.
The giant robot fly story is a definite go, said the email from my instructor.
Two weeks later I was on the phone again with Kitcherson. I wanted to schedule a time to meet himto come up to Berkeley and see the robot fly. Kitcherson said, of course, no problem, and he offered me a time just three days in the future. He apologized for being cagey the first time. I must think he was paranoid or uptight, he ventured.
No, no! I said. I understand completely.
I was being sincere. Though I hadnt talked to Kitcherson very much, I was starting to like him.
Then, because I was on my toes, I thought to put another matter to Kitcherson. The next stage of the writing process was fast approaching. It was time to start thinking in terms of a broader perspective than just the man who built the robot fly. Who could I call for an outside view on what this revolutionary robot meant for the human race? A theoretical physicist? Another specialist in insect flight?
Instantly, he was cagey again, hesitant again. A couple of names came out. A couple of concerns were raised. And then, when in response I offered the same soothing assurances I had offered him the last time, finally, in his courteous and self-effacing way, Kitcherson went ballistic.
Now...see!... he said, this is exactlyexactlythe problem I was getting atwhen I said this was going to be an awkward time. I cant have youI cant...
It took half an hour to disentangle what it was that Kitcherson was going on about and to calm him down, but eventually I got it: It was about unseemliness.
Kitcherson wanted no unseemliness while his paper was in the process of peer review. It was bad for his chances, he contended. If I were going to create unseemliness, then I could not write the story.
So what counts as unseemly? Well, some people in Kitchersons field debuted their research results in magazines like Scientific American or Discover, and this is unseemly. Unseemly, because these werent research journalsthese werent peer-reviewedand because parading your conclusions in this way before the naive public without having subjected them to peer review looks like youre out to gain attention you havent earned. Also unseemly, for the same reason, is grandstanding about your research prior to peer review. And finally, one might as well be creating unseemliness if one were to be creating the appearance of unseemliness.
In practical terms: If a peer reviewer were to surmise that Kitcherson was talking to the press, it would be unseemly.
When I asked Kitcherson to confirm that this was really what he meant, I thought we had reached reductio ad absurdum.
But he just said yes.
So I asked soberly into the phone, Would you rather I were whispering right now?
And his response was Hah!.. No, no, no...
He was not that skittish a guy, he said. And he was not out to make my work impossible. He was a friend to the press.
Remember? he asked me.
But he seemed pretty skittish to me.
In the end, what we concluded was this: Kitcherson would give me some names when I came to Berkeley; I could write the story; I could talk to the scientists whose names hed give me; I would be sworn not mention the robot fly when I talked to them; and I would be sworn not to mention his name. Or maybe we wouldnt have to be quite so strict. Wed see.
All right? asked Kitcherson, No worries?".
When I met him in his office in Berkeley, I did have some worries, but nothing to dampen my enthusiasm about the fact that the reporting was under wayand especially that I was going to finally behold this robot fly. I wanted my senses to be alert and my mind to be unclouded: With the impression this robot fly was going to make on me, it was my task to amaze the English-speaking world. This was the duty I had to the robot fly, and to Kitcherson for giving me the storynot to mention my duty to the world. After all, how could I feel otherwise? Combine the innate universal fascination and the transcendental scientific importance of this robot fly; consider the widespread public ignorance about science and the correspondingly widespread desire for better education: Do we not arrive at a moral imperative? How could I ever begrudge Kitcherson for anything, with the opportunity he was giving me?
So what if he was being a little neurotic about his papers review? If I were a young assistant professora professor of any ageand a paper of mine were teetering on acceptance into Science I would be edgy too. Anyway, the fault was partly my own, I figured. I had gone and admittedno, trumpetedthat I was not a professional journalist. That might have scared anybody in a situation where discretion was an issue.
Because I had only talked to Kitcherson on the phone, I felt I had the opportunity to turn this first impression around. I was going to be professional. I was going to look professional. When Kitcherson needed to premier a breakthrough in the future, he would not be phoning National Geographic or New Scientist, he would be phoning me. Thats how professional this interview was going to be. I bought a miniature cassette recorder of the type that reporters use just five minutes before I got to Kitchersons lab.
Everything was going fine. All of Kitchersons former caginess was gone. He was being articulate and talking for long intervals about interesting things with hardly any prompting. Id toss out a topic and he would expound on it. We talked about his academic background, about his approach to science, about the nervous system of flies. Kitcherson waxed philosophical about how the brain of a fly would hardly have reason to exist were it not for all the demands of flight.
Huh! I said, admiring the iconoclasm of the idea.
So how big a CPUor chip, or whatever, I asked, do you have inside Robofly?
Kitcherson had made me curious about just how powerful a fly brain was in comparison to computers. And if a fly brain existed mostly just for flying, then I thought the amount of computer it took to run a perfect model of a fly would be a pretty good indicator. ("Robofly was the name Kitcherson said that everybody used around the laboratory, and I had taken to using it with gusto).
Inside? responded Kitcherson.
Inside Robofly, I answered back.
There was a pause.
Um, I said, I mean...I know...I-mean-I-dont-know whether you control this thing by remote control....Well...I guess you must...so...then I guess its not really the same thing as in a real fly, which...uh...needs to make decisions about which way its going to go and...stuff...too.
It had been a stupid question, I realized.
So...uh... I continued, since, I guess...hah!...we hardly... hah!...know how even a fly brain works...hah!
It was a really stupid question.
Then...hah!...I guess it really doesnt make any sense to ask that kind of question...hah!...in the first place.
Theres no inside of Robofly, Kitcherson said. Youre not thinking... His voice trailed off.
I knew what I was thinking but I didnt feel inclined to say.
Kitcherson suddenly leaned forward in his chair, fixed me with a look of astonishment and blurted this is not something that flies around the room!
Uh, you mean...uh... I said, with a burgeoning feeling of dread, you mean it just like...it has wires coming out of it, or...uh...just sits on a table?
No! It doesnt sit on a table! said Kitcherson politely but emphatically.
This thing is sitting in 500 gallons of mineral oil in the basement! This is a pair of wings! he said, A pair of robotic wings scaled like a flysthat reproduce the flow patterns around the wings of a fly! Remember?! I said this was about aerodynamics?
I understood now.
It was a measure of Kitchersons distaste for unseemliness that with hardly a pause we carried on as if no misunderstanding had ever taken place.
After the interview, Kitcherson led me from his fifth-floor office down to the basement. Turning the key and opening the door with a grandiose sweep, he invited me to behold...
Robofly said Kitcherson. He pointed to the center of the small, windowless room.
Where? I said.
There! in the center of the room! in the tank! he said. We stepped in for a closer look.
The tank was built to Houdini specificationsa rectangular glass cell as tall and a bit wider than a phone boothand filled with liquid. A wriggling hand-cuffed man hanging upside-down inside I could have spotted instantly. But instead it was a pair of clear, 10-inch plexiglass wings joined at right angles to two rods about half an inch thick, dangling at about eye level. My disappointment hadnt climaxed when Kitcherson suddenly said
Here, I should probably get it going for you.
He rattled away at the keyboard of a computer directly in front of Roboflys tank and the two plexiglass ovals slowly began to move. Or rather, instantly they began to move, but very, very slowly. They swept towards the front of the tank in a kind of clapping gesture, with a feathering or twisting of the blades at the same time. The whole wing beat took about five secondswith the effect that Robofly in action was more like a demonstration of the breast stroke than of flapping insect flight.
At the sight, my chest muscles clenched and my face muscles turned to jelly. I kept my eyes fixed on the tank and tried to muster the appearance of nonchalant curiosity, meanwhile hoping that Kitcherson wasnt looking. In one sense or another he looked the other way. We parted on pleasant terms, and with the agreement to meet again or talk more on the phone over the next weeks. I thanked Kitcherson for his time and especially for permitting me to see Robofly.
It was too late to alter course. I was committed to Robofly for two separate story assignments. My obligation was to write about Robofly in whatever form it chose to assume on earth or under mineral oil.
With the science-fiction splendor of a robot fly no longer among the storys virtues, I felt obliged somehow to make up for the loss. My only option seemingly was to identify whatever profound but technical principle Robofly proved, and to write about this in a manner that was captivatingly lucid.
But then it appeared that what Robofly proved about the nervous system amounted to very little. When I pinned him down on the question, Kitcherson said that in describing this aspect of his research he had been speaking broadly. Yes, in general, fly aerodynamics offered revelations about the fly nervous system. But Robofly? He didnt really see it.
What Robofly revealed about aerodynamics suddenly appeared to thin too. Solves the problem of insect flight, yes, in a manner of speaking, said Kitcherson. That didnt mean he had any equations to place in the hands of yearning theorists. It meant that Robofly realistically modeled how air flows around the wings of a flapping fly. Now scientists could see it, he meant.
Finally, I learned that Roboflys wouldnt be the first pair of robot insect wings to hit the pages of a research journal.
The story lacked the urgency that strikes a newspaper editor between the eyes.
Nevermind. Important technical findings of potentially large importance within a field can constitute news. This story was just the kind of thing with which a science journalist justifies his or her employment. It would be a valuable exercise.
I would make it understandable and interesting, or die trying.
I needed only to identify what made Robofly such a contribution to insect aerodynamics that, on the basis of some experience, Kitcherson thought it a sure thing for Science (barring unseemliness, that is). But plainly, no editor would trust Kitcherson as an authority on the brilliance of his own work. I needed another insect aerodynamicist.
About 10 people in the world laid claim to the title, according to Kitcherson. And the idea of me talking to any one of them, he said, made him very nervous. Any two or three might be the ones right now deciding whether Robofly would appear in Science (peer review is anonymous and there was no telling which ones it might be). With even greater likelihood, Id pick the talkative chum of a reviewer. In fact, Kitcherson knew them all, he said, and they were talkative.
Fine. I would learn insect aerodynamics and the importance of Robofly myself. Ive been to graduate school once, I reasoned.
Kitcherson faxed me a copy of the manuscript he had submitted to Science. I scoured it, but since the original was in color, the meaning of the graphs on my black-and-white facsimile was obscure. And though graphs arent usually essential in identifying what authors consider to be the groundbreaking aspects of their research, discerning these aspects in Kitchersons article turned out to be my biggest challenge. Kitcherson had buried anything new and novel within a thicket of references to prior findings. He told me that in writing this way he was trying not to hold himself too high above anybody else: Any of the authors of those prior findings might be a reviewer of the manuscript.
My instructor said Look, Ive got a suggestion for this story: New Journalism.
Preposterous, a cop-outwas my reaction. Im doing this story straight-up. This isnt Hunter S. Thompson, this is insect aerodynamicsand a damn important case of it too.
I searched a few databases in the library and made a short list of 29 scientific articles that seemed especially likely to help in appraising what made Robofly so important. I photocopied 10 (time spent photocopying was time better spent reading). I also checked out a book on fluid physics for biologists.
The book was impressively engaging for a book chock full of physics. But I just didnt have the time to read it all.
With four waking hours to go, I decided to phone the author, Steven Vogel. Actually, his name was one of those that Kitcherson had given me. Vogel was not an insect aerodynamicist per se, Kitcherson had said. But he had trained a slew of the people now doing the very best research in the field of biomechanicswhich covered insect flight. And Vogel himself had researched fruit-fly aerodynamics early in his career. Vogel was knowledgeable, had perspective and wouldnt be reviewing the paper.
Of course, I still wasnt allowed to breath a word to him about Robofly.
On the phone with Vogel, he asked me who I wrote for. He said, personally, he often wrote articles for Discover. I became convinced more than ever that, if anybody in the world could engagingly describe the aerodynamic enigma that Robofly dispelled, it was Vogel.
We had a pleasant discussion that ranged over all kinds of things. Unable to mention Robofly, I had no way to keep Vogel oriented to the matter at hand.
I came away with one lucid, engaging and seemingly pertinent quote; and in the hour left to me to ponder what this story would be about, it was this quote that stared up at me from my notes. Regarding the problem faced by physics in explaining what keeps bugs in the air, Vogel said: What problem?
I had my story.
Text © 1999 Oliver Baker
Illustrations © 1999 Craig Furlong