An article published on May 10 in the scientific journal Journal of Comparative Physiology A reveals that Albert Einstein suggested, in a letter written in 1949 to researcher Glyn Davys, that the behavior of migratory birds and homing pigeons could someday lead to the understanding of some physical process not yet known. Once again, German mathematician and physicist was right: he had predicted a process discovered in 2008 – the geolocation of birds by means of a magnetic field.
Albert Einstein, German physicist responsible for the theory of general relativity.Source: Pixabay
The letter came to light after 72 years, after the recipient’s wife, Judith Davys, read an article published by the study’s authors about the mathematical skills of bees. The team then spent a year investigating the content of the correspondence.
The story behind the letter
In 1933, Einstein left Germany to work at Princeton University in the United States. There, in April 1949, he met scientist Karl von Frisch in a lecture. Von Frisch was presenting his new research on how bees navigate more effectively using light polarization patterns. He used this information to help translate the now famous bee dance language, for which he received the Nobel Prize.
The day after von Frisch’s lecture, the researcher and Einstein shared a private meeting. The meeting has not been formally documented, but the recently discovered letter provides some insights about what may have been discussed at the time.
The research team suspects that Einstein’s letter is the answer to a question originally sent by Glyn Davys – who in 1942, during World War II, joined the British Royal Navy. As an engineer, Davys researched the use of radar to detect ships and aircraft – a new technology kept secret at the time.
Letter written by Albert Einstein on October 18, 1949.Source: Dyer et al., J Comp Physiol A./Reproduction
Coincidentally, the additional sense present in bats, known as biosonar or echolocation, was discovered at the same time. This sparked the idea that animals could have different senses than humans. The study team found no previous correspondence between Davys and Einstein, but kept looking for what could have led him to write for the famous physicist. It was when they searched online archives of news published in England in 1949.
So they found out that von Frisch’s studies on the navigation of bees were already big news in July of that year, even reported by the British newspaper The Guardian.
Those responsible for the study believe that this was what prompted Davys to write for Einstein. It is likely that the opening letter mentioned the bees and von Frisch, for Einstein replied: “I am well acquainted with Mr. v. Frisch ”. Einstein also suggests in the answer that, for bees to expand our knowledge of physics, new types of behavior would need to be observed.
Einstein imagined that new discoveries could come from studying the behavior of animals: “It is thought that the investigation of the behavior of migratory birds and homing pigeons could someday lead to the understanding of some physical process that is not yet known,” he said, at the time.
Einstein was right, again
Research has recently revealed the secrets of navigating migratory birds, which fly thousands of kilometers to reach a precise destination. A study of robins equipped with radio transmitters revealed, in 2018, that these birds use a kind of magnetic compass as the main guidance guide during the flight.
Flight track of nine birds equipped with satellite transmitters.Source: The Royal Society / Reproduction
Read the letter in full:
“Dear sir, I am well acquainted with Mr. v. Frisch. But I cannot see the possibility of using these results in research on the basis of physics. Such would only be the case if a new type of sensory perception, respective to its stimuli, was revealed through the behavior of bees ”. “It is thought that the investigation of the behavior of migratory birds and homing pigeons could someday lead to the understanding of some physical process that is not yet known”.