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Levitating Fruit Flies To Learn About Space Travel

Physicist Richard Hill and colleagues at the University of Nottingham have a powerful magnet that they have used to levitate fruits, beer and most recently, fruit flies. It's a low-cost way to study the effects of zero gravity on biological systems, Hill says.

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Transcript

IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Flora Lichtman is here with our Video Pick of the Week. Happy New Year to you, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: Happy New Year, Ira.

FLATOW: Ok, you got a good first of the year-video-for us?

LICHTMAN: Yeah, I think so. The question is, what happens when you levitate fruit flies? This is a question that Richard Hill, a physicist at The University of Nottingham, was wondering and executed in his lab. Can you imagine what would happen?

FLATOW: Is it like the trick, levitating?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: I know it sounds like that.

FLATOW: How do you do that? I mean, you put a hoop around them to show there's nothing holding them up, so?

LICHTMAN: Actually, the technology of this is kind of the part that I like the most. It turns out, Richard Hill says, that we are all a tiny bit magnetic, just a really itsy-bitsy bit. And we - anything with electrons is. And it's a repulsive force. So if we interact with a magnetic field, we're sort of very slightly repelled by it. We're a little bit repulsive, but...

FLATOW: Well, speak for yourself.

LICHTMAN: Yes. It's just - I will. I am a little bit repulsive.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: I'm a lot repulsive, yeah. I really be levitating, but go ahead.

LICHTMAN: Right. So if you have a very powerful magnet, you can feel the force. And that's what they have. They have a superconducting solenoid magnetic at The University of Nottingham, which is basically a lot of wire coiled up with a ton of amps running through it.

FLATOW: Super cold, right? Super (unintelligible).

LICHTMAN: And, yeah. And liquid helium to keep it cool.

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: So this produces a big magnetic field, big enough so that this slight repulsion that all objects feel can be used to push them into the air and levitated. So they have all this footage of strawberries levitating, liquids levitating. And in this latest study, they looked at fruit flies to see if their behavior changed in a no-gravity situation.

FLATOW: So levitating in the air, they considered would - to be like no gravity. They were just floating in the air?

LICHTMAN: Yes. So it's - the magnetic force is counteracting the force of gravity, and they're floating there. But, you know, there is little Petri dishes.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: So it's a little bit disappointing to me, anyway, because I wanted to see them like, floating all over the place, but they're mostly walking. But it turns out that they changed their walking speed a lot. They, like, start zipping around. And there's another place you can put them in this magnet where they feel 2 G, like double gravity. And they become coach potatoes. They just don't move at all.

FLATOW: It must be pretty heavy weight.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Double fruit flies. Yeah. It would be like walking the two of you.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Flora Lichtman about levitating fruit flies.

LICHTMAN: And other things.

FLATOW: And with - yeah. You just - you have a video up on our website, @sciencefriday.com. There is the video of a levitating - not just the fruit flies, but strawberries?

LICHTMAN: The water droplets, and strawberry is my personal favorite. And actually, Richard Hill told me this great story when he levitated - he wanted to levitate beer for scientific reasons, obviously.

FLATOW: Of course. Of course.

LICHTMAN: And here's - the question was, what happens to the bubbles in beer when you levitate it?

FLATOW: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

LICHTMAN: Because the bubbles, apparently, need a surface to nucleate on.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: So where do they go? So if you put beer in your superconducting magnet - I can't even believe he did this. It looks like a $700,000 piece of equipment.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: It was New Year's so.

LICHTMAN: But it's documented on his website.

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: And he then - so he puts in and you don't see any bubbles, which he filmed with this camera that he stripped all the metal out of, by the way...

FLATOW: Of course. Yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...because of the magnet problem. And he bends over a stick a straw into it, and verifies that the bubbles are there. They're just not nucleated. So the gas is there. It just dissolved in the beer because there's no glass.

FLATOW: Wow.

LICHTMAN: So that sort of what would be like to drink beer in space, if you've been wondering.

FLATOW: Wow. I'm sure he wants more money for that. Beer time.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Well, he said this is a bum for astronauts because the bubbles don't go up in space. You know, you don't - you can't burp in space.

FLATOW: That's right. That's right.

LICHTMAN: All these fun facts.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: So if you want to see this - the beer is on the video.

LICHTMAN: The beer is on a different video, but you see water. It looks very similar to the beer.

FLATOW: Water.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Water droplets, they are levitated in space. The Great Houdini would love it.

LICHTMAN: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: And strawberry is there.

LICHTMAN: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: And did he just throw fruit in there and see what else...

LICHTMAN: I mean, I think anything little would work. I asked, you know, my first question was like, well, so can you levitate me? When am I going to be levitated? And this was kind of amazing. The diamagnetic susceptibility - this is this weak repulsive force that we all have - is different where you compare to, like, soft tissue, like your skin. So if you were to levitate a person - he said it's theoretically possible - but you'd probably be levitating your soft tissue higher than your bones. So your bones would kind of drop down and your soft tissue would be holding you up, which sounds uncomfortable.

FLATOW: Yeah. I hate it when that happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LICHTMAN: Yeah. Might as well just go to space at that point.

FLATOW: Or would your soft tissue then flip you upside down like a - how can I put this delicately? If you have a lot of tissue in your tushy...

LICHTMAN: Well, what if you have a beer belly or something?

FLATOW: ...or - well, there you go. Would your best side float up, you know, higher than your bones?

LICHTMAN: I don't - well, Richard Hill, please tell us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: OK.

LICHTMAN: Hopefully, we can find an answer to that.

FLATOW: We can find an answer. Yeah. And this is not something you could build at home, right? Because people are going to say, I can with a little bit of magnet, a little bit of this. That's going to...

LICHTMAN: I know. You did suggest that a car battery can be used. It's not a theory, Ira.

FLATOW: I - well, you said it was like 100 amps going through this, right? As the research in...

LICHTMAN: 120 amps, yeah.

FLATOW: 120 amps, a car battery puts that out when you start your engine...

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: ...for a very short period of time. But I don't have that superconducting...

LICHTMAN: Yeah. That's might be the missing component.

FLATOW: ...ring down right.

You know, I spent this thing for it. I got to go RadioShack and get those pieces for it so I can do this one at home.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. Well, we're not suggesting.

FLATOW: We're not suggesting any - but if you want to see the video, it's up on our website, @sciencefriday.com. Levitating all kinds of stuff.

LICHTMAN: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: So now you've got from - we had stuff flying in our little tubes weeks before.

LICHTMAN: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: Now we've got levitating stuff.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. What's next?

FLATOW: What's next?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: You can see the video at our website, @sciencefriday.com. Let's us know what you think. Maybe you have some suggestions, or you got a video of your own you want to see along as a companion to that one. Thank you, Flora.

Absolutely. Thanks, Ira.

Our Video of the Week, Pick of the Week. Flora Lichtman our multimedia editor. I'm Ira Flatow in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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