Studying Things That Fly
The Dragonfly
“The Butterfly” “Then”
Research Update
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The Lure of the Dragonfly


Seeking a Quantitative Understanding of Flapping Flight

Jane Wang

Jane Wang
Theoretical and Applied Mechanics

Jane Wang, Theoretical and Applied Mechanics
Interviewed by Ernestina Snead, Editor

SNEAD: How did you get started with or become interested in the research topic of insect flight? What intrigued you?

WANG: I became interested in it by chance. I stumbled upon a book on the mechanics of flying and swimming, browsing in the math library at Oxford University while taking a break. (I was a postdoc in theoretical physics working on problems in random matrices.) I simply wanted to know more about it. My luck had it that the author of the book, Steve Childress, was at the institute [New York University’s Courant Institute] where I would be going next. He later told me that there was not much known about the aerodynamics of insect flight.

SNEAD: What problem did you want to solve, and how did you approach it?

WANG: Obviously, insects fly by flapping their wings. But to quantitatively predict the flow and forces created by a flapping wing is not easy. Crude calculations based on classical aerodynamics do not take us very far, and they often give us wrong answers.

The problem I started with was to calculate from the first principle the swirls of air that are generated by the flapping insect wing and to understand how these vortices push the wing so that the insects can stay airborne. This was done by solving the governing equation of the fluid flow coupled to an oscillating wing.


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