Swatting Fast Flies

We’re a lot smarter than flies, which probably helps us swat them.

But the insects are very good at being somewhere else when the flyswatter or newspaper hits whatever they were on.

I’ve run into a few reasonable speculations. One was that flies are hypersensitive to air movements, and feel an approaching object. That may be part of the answer.

Scientists found another piece to that puzzle recently. “Recently” by my standards, that is. Flies live a whole lot faster than we do. Or, in a fly’s eyes, we move in slow motion.

Bestiaries and Henry VIII

That’s a page from the Aberdeen Bestiary.

Scholars think it dates from the 1100s, more or less. We don’t know who made it.

Its paper trail starts in the Old Royal Library at Westminster Palace, in 1542.

I’ll give England’s Henry VIII credit for savvy. The Aberdeen Bestiary was “rescued” when he took anything worth taking from monasteries in his territory.

Henry’s agents were savvy, too.

Before getting to work, they’d do an inventory of their next target.

Sometimes they’d remove and auction off the lead roofs.

Sometimes they figured Henry would get more by leasing the king’s new property. Those buildings stayed intact.

Quite a few of the monasteries in England dated from a 11th and 12th century European monastic building boom.

They were an integral part of English society, along with the priories, convents and friaries Henry seized. His reasons may not have been entirely selfish. Complaints about monks had been were piling up across Europe.

At least some monks had lost track of their mission by the 16th century. The Catholic Church was hitting another rough spot.

Nothing new it that. Small problems accumulate. Every few centuries we work through the backlog. We hit a really bad patch about a thousand years back. (October 22, 2017)

What made the 16th century one special was, I think, European economics and politics.1

The Somewhat-Good Old Days

I’d rather live in the early 21st century than the early 11th. I like having Internet access, among other things.

But those ‘good old days’ weren’t all bad.

They weren’t all good, either.

We had wars, plagues, and famines in Europe. Benedict IX was Pope three times: kicked out twice, sold the papacy once.

The latter is a unique achievement. He may be the all-time worst pope. On the ‘up’ side, The Gregorian Reform was slowly dealing with a massive backlog of bad habits.

Meanwhile, folks with marketable skills were moving to the growing towns.

I see increased trade between territories, and with the world, as a basically good thing. That’s partly because I think learning what others think helps everyone in the long run.

Having a little more than what’s needed for survival also lets folks do ‘civilized’ things.

For some Americans, that’s sitting on bleachers and watching other folks play games. Others buy big-screen televisions for pretty much the same purpose. Fast food and information technology are high on our ‘I want that’ lists, too.

Wealth also lets folks, particularly in the more wealthy nations, support arts and sciences.

Again, I see that as a basically good thing.

It’s a lot easier to find data about current research spending by national governments. I think governments have a useful function, but they’re not the only way to get things done.

One of these days I’ll talk about the Hanseatic League, but not today.

I was going somewhere with this.

Let’s see. Monasteries, the Aberdeen Bestiary, bleachers, research. Right.

I don’t yearn for an imaginary Golden Age, or fear that domestic robots like Loomo will destroy civilization.2

I figure the 21st century will be pretty much like the 1st and 11th: good news, bad news, and everything in between. The same goes for the 31st, 41st, and following centuries.

I also figure we’ll keep learning, making mistakes, and learning from them. Eventually.


Some medieval books were written by natural philosophers.

Like today’s scholarly works, they often had illustrations.

A picture may not be literally worth a thousand words, but they’re effective communication tools.

Medieval bestiaries were a bit like today’s coffee table books.

They reflected current knowledge of animals, particularly those in western Europe.

But they weren’t ‘science books.’

For one thing, nobody was a “scientist” until 1833.

That’s when William Whewell called natural philosophers with particular of interests and habits “scientists.”

He might or might not have called St. Hildegard of Bingen a scientist.

Her work at the Disibodenberg monastery helped lay the foundations of scientific natural history in Germany.

She was also a Benedictine abbess.

The firestorm we call the Reformation hit Disibodenberg monastery in 1559.

Between four and a half centuries of no maintenance and being used as a quarry, the buildings are not in good shape.

Hildegard’s work survived though, and so did the Church.

St. Albertus Magnus, another German, was an 11th century Dominican friar and bishop, and a natural philosopher. He’s often called a scientist these days.

Getting back to medieval bestiaries, they described critters like basilisks, bears, deer, dragons and unicorns. Each section was a mix of what we call real and imaginary animals. Each entry described the creature and said what moral lesson it teaches.3

Bestiaries by more recent artists and writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Saul Steinberg reflect their culture’s knowledge and beliefs.


Since medieval bestiaries were a mix of real and imaged critters, some academics decided they were written by ignorant folks.

There’s a little truth to it. We’ve learned a great deal since Hildegard of Bingen’s day.

However, there’s a big difference between wilful ignorance and lacking knowledge that hasn’t been discovered yet.

The ‘ignorant medieval Christians’ attitude started getting traction during the Enlightenment. It’s consistent with viewing religion and superstition as pretty much the same thing.

I don’t see religion that way, but I’m a Christian and a Catholic.

I also know a bit about what’s happened since folks like Anaximander, Confucius, Gilgamesh, Jimmu, and Narmer helped start our civilizations.

I don’t expect everyone to act and think like today’s Westerners.

I realize that seeing a sharp divide between natural philosophy and religion, faith and reason is new. As a default viewpoint, anyway.

Folks in medieval Europe weren’t willfully ignorant. Not any more so than their descendants. But they didn’t see reality quite the same way most do today.

Happily, some Western scholars are beginning to think maybe post-Enlightenment Europeans aren’t the only ones with a legitimate worldview. It’s a start.

My own perspective is a bit counter-cultural.

I think seeing faith, reason, science, and religion as separate things makes sense. It makes studying each a bit easier. I also think they both pursue truth.

Science and religion don’t exist in different realities.

They work together fine, or should. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159)

Science is the best way we’ve found for learning how the universe works.

It’s not so good at telling us why we exist, or why studying this wonder-filled universe is a good idea. Religion, the Catholic version, shows us being curious is okay, and how we fit into reality. I see it as ‘the big picture.’ (Catechism, 282289, 293294, 1723, 2294)

Ideally, understanding that religion isn’t science would also keep oddities like “creation science” from getting much support.4

Flies: Life in the Fast Lane

(From Science Photo Library, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

Why is it so hard to swat a fly?
Rory Galloway, BBC News (September 17, 2017)

Try to swat a fly and it will soon become clear that they’re faster than you. Much faster. But how on Earth do these tiny creatures – with their minuscule brains – outwit us so easily?

“You’ve probably pondered it after chasing a fly around your house and flailing your shoe with repeated, unsuccessful swats. How does it move so fast? Can it read my mind?…”

Flies aren’t very smart, and they can’t read human minds. I’m quite sure about that. Their knack for being somewhere else when we try swatting them comes from having a really fast flicker fusion rate.

Faster than ours, at any rate. We’re perceptive speedsters compared to turtles.

Flicker fusion rate and flicker fusion thresholds are things we didn’t know about until quite recently.

The f. f. threshold is how fast lights flicker when we start seeing them as steady illumination. The same principle applies to images displayed in rapid sequence.

It’s part of scientific revolution’s 19th century phase. Gustav Theodor Fechner organized what we’d been learning about perception in the mid-1800s

He called relating physical stimuli to our conscious perceptions psychophysics. The name stuck, and we’re still finding some answers and many questions about what and how we notice things.

Zoetropes and Flicker Thresholds

Someone built the first zoetrope in the 19th century. Probably. Maybe.

There’s an ongoing discussion about whether a 5,000 year old bowl found in Iran. It looks like a zoetrope, but could just be a bowl that looks like one.

A zoetrope is like a phenakistiscope with the images and slits on the gadget’s wall.

“Zoetrope” and “phenakistiscope” are words you probably won’t need to memorize. They work like GIF animations. Except they’re mechanical, not digital.

By the time I was in high school, scientists had learned that the flicker fusion threshold for humans is about 50 to 90 times a second. That knowledge helped folks design analog television tech.

Then we started working on new tech. Maybe research uncovered faster flicker thresholds first. Or maybe the research was done to find out why folks noticed annoying flicker with some new display screens.

Either way, we learned that the human fast flicker threshold is somewhere around 500 times a second for displays with high frequency spatial edges. That may or may not be our upper limit. Like I said, this is a fairly new field.

Our tech is improving, too. That helps scientists get more data. Sometimes new tech shows a new aspect of being human. Newly-discovered, that is.

We’re learning about how other animals see the world, too.

So far, scientists are pretty sure that larger animals generally have slower flicker rates than small ones. A critter’s metabolism matters, too. The faster it works, the faster the flicker rate. In general.5

Science, Religion, and Making Sense

I’ve yet to meet someone who actually said we were “tampering with things man was not supposed to know.”

The attitude exists, however, with varying degrees of severity.

It’s not limited to disgruntled Christians.

Devotees of doom and gloom with secular preferences seem convinced that global catastrophe is just around the corner. Their focus of fear has changed a bit since my youth.

I think some are sincere, others may think scaring folks silly will help their cause. A few may simply enjoy the attention.

I don’t know what goes on in another person’s head. I hope doomsayers are sincere. I’m also quite sure that their more extreme predictions will fizzle and be forgotten.

On the other hand, I think dealing with environmental problems more effectively makes sense. The near-constant angst, not so much.6

More about why I think pursuing truth is a good idea:

1 European politics and Henry VIII:

2 The past; just like today, only different:

3 Faith and reason, science and religion:

4 Different cultures, different viewpoints:

5 Psychophysics, there’s lots to learn:

6 Being concerned, within reason:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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