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The Secret to Walking on Ceilings

January 6, 2011
Maui Weekly

This time of the long nights is, for me, the ideal opportunity to celebrate the gecko, a little nocturnal creature that recently brought scientists to their knees.

Here’s the back-story. In 1899, the commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents proclaimed, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

About the same time, Harvard’s president, in a speech to incoming freshmen, advised them not to major in physics because there was so little left for physicists to discover. In England, Physicist Lord Kelvin proclaimed there were only “two small clouds” on the horizon—only two little problems yet to be solved. Much to everyone’s surprise, one of these “small clouds” led to the discovery of quantum physics, which turned physics on its ear.

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In the year 2000, geckos became the focus of researchers who hoped to develop new kinds of glue. Little did they suspect, these small lizards were using a much more powerful force to walk on walls, windows and ceilings.

Physicists found that if you go down, down, down inside the atoms that you and I and everything are made of, you arrive at the “sub-atomic realm.” Here you meet up with impish little particles like electrons, protons, muons, gluons, etc. And these elfin entities can magically locate themselves in more than one place at a time!

Now, as you may know, the movement of electrons is the flow of electricity, and a third of our national economy depends on products that owe their existence to our knowledge of this subatomic realm.

Yet physicists keep on claiming that subatomic weirdness is confined to the micro-world of subatomic particles and does not enter into our everyday reality. However, they have never found any boundary between the magical subatomic realm and everyday reality.

All the while, geckos have been walking on ceilings without falling off. In the year 2000, these little lizards became the focus of researchers who hoped to develop new kinds of glue. Researchers figured that gecko feet must be covered with a glue that could be synthesized in the lab to create stronger adhesives. But, as it turns out, they have no glue. If they did, they’d have dust, fuzz and other particles stuck onto them. No, gecko feet are always clean. Their secret to walking on ceilings is… quantum physics.

Physicists tell us there is “the strong nuclear force,” and there is also “the weak nuclear force.” The strong one is unimaginably powerful, but it acts only between distances so tiny that we can barely measure them. As it turns out, tiny hairs on gecko toes are so microscopic that we can’t see them. The distance between these hairs is so miniscule that the strong nuclear force comes into play.

So, geckos are using the power of quantum physics to walk on walls, windows and ceilings! Thank you, gecko, for showing us that reality is utterly magical—and completely scientific.



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