Birds have been known to have an uncanny sense of direction. The homing pigeon, for instance, was important in both world wars, used to relay messages over long distances, relying on the bird’s instinctual ability to find its way home. Recent studies have shown that particular molecules (superoxide and cryptochrome, specifically; which are used in firefighter’s oxygen tanks and which stops some DNA from overwriting other DNA, in people, respectively) in the bird’s eye allow them to see the magnetic fields of the Earth, giving them an up-to-the-minute view of the world around them.
While extremely fascinating stuff, it still perplexed scientists, how. Now, physicist researchers out of Austria have given the world a way to test a theory: that a process called quantum entanglement, is how the birds pull off their amazing magnetic sight. Basically, molecules that have a quantum entanglement will always spin in the same direction, except (perhaps) if they have been affected by a magnetic field. So, imagine if those crazy molecules we mentioned earlier were linked in such a way, but an electron was blown away from the rest of the herd and changed spin; once the electron gets back to the rest of the molecule, its shift is detected, and boom – magnetic topography the bird can follow. At least that’s what Dr. Hans Briegel and friends at the University of Innsbruck in Austria thought was the case and did the following experiment:
They took two sets of molecules, cryptochrome and pyrene; the latter of which is known not to be important to anything with cryptochromes’ (read: anything with eyes) biology; and subjected them to magnetic fields, hoping the spins of entangled cryptochromes would be found affected, and the pyrenes not. Turns out the opposite is the case. Whoops.
While this does affect the usefulness of this test to some degree, the experiment is not completely out. Dr. Briegel thinks that the problem is that the cryptochromes they used weren’t entangled. By setting microwaves on them, they’re hoping to locate the entangled sets and subject them to the magnetics with a positive reaction.
This is the way my science experiments always worked in school. Once, I did a science fair project on rocket flight and had an Estes hooked up, but it wouldn’t fly. So I threw it in the microwave and the engine exploded. Go figure.
I think the real thing to take out of this article is that birds are better than people, primarily the scientists studying their optical abilities. While we’re still just guessing at what makes these things tick, they’ve been utilizing it for thousands of years. Now I don’t feel so bad about all-you-can-eat chicken wing Wednesdays at the House of Fowl down the street from me. Mmmm, delicious honey barbecue cryptochromes…