MacArthur Prize winner located far afield

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs



Integrative Biology Professor Michael Dickinson may go down in MacArthur Foundation record books as the most difficult prize-winner to reach. He finally got the good news from a pay phone on Hawaii’s Na Pali coast.
Usha McFarling photo

31 October 2001 | Michael Dickinson was vacationing in a secluded coastal section of the island of Kauai, 4,000 feet above sea level, when he discovered a cryptic message — asking him to call his campus office — thumb-tacked to his cabin door.

“I don’t know how the message got there,” said the 38-year-old Berkeley professor of integrative biology. “We were staying in these bare bones cabins in a remote part of the Na Pali coast. I didn’t have a cell phone, but fortunately my hiking companion did. But we got caught in a rain storm before I got through and the cell phone shorted out.”

Dickinson did not know that his office had spent days trying to contact him. But dutifully, he and his friend took time out of their vacation to go searching for a pay phone to return the call. They finally found one in Kokee State Forest, next to a park cafeteria overrun by wild chickens.

It seemed like a comedy of errors. After the difficulty with the cell phone, Dickinson got through to his office on the pay phone, but was told only that he was to call another number. With no pen on hand, the scholar scratched the phone number in the sand — but then feared that the strutting birds would erase it.

The area code tipped him off to a possible MacArthur Fellowship before he placed the call.

“As soon as my chair gave me the telephone number, I had a suspicion it was them, because I knew they were in Chicago, by the area code, and I knew they announced the awards this time of year,” he said.

His suspicions were right. As one of the world’s leading experts on the aerodynamics of insect flight, Dickinson had just been awarded one of MacArthur’s 23 “genius” awards. In addition to becoming a prize winner, he also went down in the foundation’s record books as the most difficult recipient to reach.

So desperate was everyone to reach him that they even considered hiring a skywriter to etch a message above Na Pali.

The MacArthur Foundation makes a special point of awarding scholars who are pursuing innovative studies with its annual “genius” awards. Dickinson is being recognized for his innovative studies of insect flight, which span a number of fields, including neurobiology, biomechanics, structural engineering, general physiology and animal behavior. As something of a pioneer in his research strategy for studying flight dynamics, the neuroethologist concentrates on studies of the nerve and muscle connections that allow flying insects to maneuver so masterfully.

“What makes insect wings work is how they move and not what they are,” he said.

That perspective represents a departure from fields such as aerodynamics, which have traditionally focused on the shape of wings. “It’s the animal’s intelligence that enables it to fly, not the morphological features,” he said. “They don’t fly like airplanes. The motion that allows them to fly comes from the animal’s skeleton and muscle and brain.”

Dickinson chose the fly as his primary insect because of its masterful means of locomotion.

“Flies are the masters of locomotion. They’re the masters of information processing, their eyes are the fastest visual systems on the planet, their muscles are the most powerful biological machines on the planet,” he said. “They have evolved gyroscopes.”

He has some unique laboratory equipment for measuring wing motion, designed and given to him by a colleague. The flight chamber features a five-inch-diameter cyclinder with lights that scan back and forth in the lime-green interior of the chamber. The lights can measure a fly’s wing-flapping, as the insect flies stationary, held in mid-air by a pair of tiny metal pins. From these studies, Dickinson has carried out some groundbreaking work in bioengineering; for instance, he was the first scientist able to quantify the gravitational forces on a moving biological appendage.

His studies also have applications in a variety of other fields: environmental monitoring, search and rescue, space flight and remote sensing.

He plans to use his award money — $100,000 per year for five years — for research projects unlikely to be funded through standard channels. Among his interests is a project to build a robotic animal so realistic that it will fool its living counterparts into thinking that it’s real.

“You could set up some social interaction with the animal and the robotic animal, and program the robotic animal to behave in certain ways,” Dickinson said. “The ultimate goal would be to figure out how real animals work. Imagine, for instance, how much Jane Goodall would have learned about chimp behavior if she’d had a robotic chimp that she could have programmed to interact with her real chimpanzees.”


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