Muscle mania: a Nod To The Remote Control

Summer has popped her head around the door here in the UK, and my children are suddenly insistent upon al fresco dining.

Since we have not had a British summer for some years now, the children are in love with the idea of picnicking. But they have not altogether considered the implications.

Tonight a fly arrived to dine with us. Eight year old Felix was horrified.Β He sat looking outraged and glowering at me.

I’m not sure what he meant me to do. Should I don a tiny red cape and swing it to and fro between thumb and forefinger, yelling ‘Ole?’

“It’s a fly, Felix,” I said. “Flies happen. This is outside. You just have to get used to them.”

He clutched his home-made burger tighter to him and winced whenever our gatecrasher came close.

There have been other small visitors to the garden, however, which charmed him: top of his A list was the inchworm who appeared on my shoulder, and which he adopted Β with all speed.

It is the creature’s movements which charm. It seems to be painstakingly measuring out whatever it encounters, like some small conscientious council clerk. Look closer, and you’ll see the Godzilla appeal for a small boy. This is a miniature monster, an adventure in a jam jar: and one with a placid temperament.

We watched it inch along his arm and then hoist itself on its little forelegs to have a reconnoitre, to nose around before gathering itself up to mark out another measure in this universe of infinite inches.

Consider the muscle power required to move in this way. A caterpillar like this has no bones to which to attach tendons and direct muscles to do its bidding.

Instead, says a 2007 article for the Journal of the Royal Society, it has the most extraordinary muscle quality: soft tissues which actually have similar properties to rubber; elastic proteins which choreograph electrical impulses, contractions and stretching to the most limber and sophisticated degree. These small aeronauts in waiting have a different freedom of movement from their adult counterparts: unlimited by internal skeleton, they are flexible beyond our wildest dreams, with 4,000 muscles compared to our 600 or so.

A very small inspiration, and one which is being mirrored in the world of the robot.

Scientists believe they have created a mechanical precursor to a muscle. A team of researchers from Nankai University in China have combined two materials which can obey the commands of an electrical impulse with a primitive form of flexible movement. Polydiacetylene, a crystal, deforms in response to an electrical current. But it’s fragile: so they’ve coated it with the new super-substance – strong and flexible – known as graphene.

With a little electrical current the artificial creation can exert as much push as natural muscle.

And what better way to test it, than to create a tiny inchworm robot? The scientists made a little worm which arches and relaxes in response to a current. It’s sedate: just 5mm in 20 seconds. But they’re working on it.

Yet as fast as they develop artificial means of movement, we develop new ways to command our world by moving the minimum of muscles.

And a few days ago we saw the end of the beginning in the sofa domination revolution: the death of the man who invented the remote control.

Eugene Polley: born in another era, in Chicago in 1915, he joined Zenith Electronics at 20 as a stock boy. But life changed irrevocably at 40, in 1955, when he worked out that you could point a beam of light at a television fitted with photoelectric cells and turn it on and off.

Instantly the need to walk to the television was a thing of the past and the couch potato was born.

The fruits of the need to move less: with remote control, with cars which respond to a little foot pressure and a turn of the wheel; they are already evident. And when I watch the Disney film Wall-E, I watch their picture of a future where corpulence is king and muscles atrophy with trepidation.

Yet might nature play another of her tricks on us? Might she begin to dispense with our internal skeletons all together, and develop our muscle power to unsettlingly flexible ends?

Perhaps the future is out there: and it is inchworm-shaped.

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48 thoughts on “Muscle mania: a Nod To The Remote Control

  1. It’s amazing to think that someone somewhere was actually responsible for such an invention, it’s something that perhaps we now all take for granted. Personally I think inchworms (I never knew that they were those before, I instinctively went with caterpillar, of the twiglet style) have far too much purpose and movement to be post-modern humans of some Wall-E style future! Our summers may not have been brilliant but we’ve had some stonking Aprils the last few years but alas we’ve awoken to thick fog here. Summer must be over already! πŸ™‚

    1. Us too…let us hope it’s a heat haze, IE πŸ™‚ You have a point about the inchworm: they have such application πŸ™‚ Not something one thinks of when considering the remote control…

  2. eeks, an inchworm. I can still handle a fly but worms creep me. As I was reading the article, I was hoping it is not going to sprinkled with the dose of facts or history but hey, how can you take that out of Shrewsday πŸ™‚

  3. I’ve always thought inchworms moved in an interesting way, but had never read or thought about how they do it. Fascinating. Your kids are lucky to have you for a mom.

    1. Thank you, PT! I think the research into caterpillar movement was something like 2007, so the information has not been out there for long. Privately I cannot help thinking of leeches when I read the report…the ultimate contractile muscle. But with the eeeew factor.

    1. I adore this song and have such happy memories of teaching it in two parts to children at school. Did it in front of an OFSTED inspector once. One of the nicest official observations ever

  4. The Fly and the Inchworm…Aesop has nothing on you as you weave the progression of your expose. I’m with Felix: we miss out on so much wonder if we blindly adopt the flitting short-attention-span world of the remote control.

    1. Couldn’t agree more, MTM πŸ™‚ This is the first time I’ve ever watched an inchworm up close: and they are every inch the equal of the old Greek mythological monsters. Only nice. Remote’s not going to reveal that….

  5. I am with Felix here! Flies have a built-in eewww factor–dirty little things (no matter if they have some beneficial uses?) and I certainly do not want them ’round my dinner plate either.

    Janh1 beat me to the punch this morning and posted the link to Danny Kaye’s song, that which also popped instantly to my mind when I started reading here. In some respects, childhood used to be a simpler, gentler time. πŸ™‚

    Then I Googled “corpulence and the atrophy of muscles” and found: http://chestofbooks.com/health/general/Family-Physician-2/Marasmus-Atrophy-Emaciation-Or-Wasting.html This paints more horrifying images in my mind, and I think we must GET UP, MOVE, and find some better means to the future; one that does not render us inchworm-like!!

    1. Amen, Karen. Time to use those muscles – and our wonderful framework of bones – to the best of our ability. That link makes sobering reading.
      So sorry you were exiled to the Spam Folder!! Disgraceful way for a regular to be treated!!

  6. Because I WAS the remote control when I was growing up, I was elated by its wide usage. It meant I could go to the bathroom in peace, without my father yelling, “Andra!! Hey ANDRA!! Come and change the channel!!!!!”

    My father. The Ultimate Couch Potato. Or, in his case, Recliner Potato.

    1. πŸ˜€ Ah, happy days, Andra…..no wonder you have such drive. You started life doing the job of an infra red beam. Recliner potato πŸ˜€ That leaves such a clear picture in my mind….

  7. I’m stuck on thinking about how much more charming an inchworm is than a fly. I wonder how many inchworms in a small area it would take before they were viewed as a pest. I was at a park hiking during a monarch butterfly migration – at first it was exciting, then I was very clearly aware that they were insects – they lost a bit of charm at that point.

  8. Boy, does this tie in with my post today: “Use It . . . Or Lose It.” Great minds/muscles move in synchronicity! πŸ˜†

    And, yes, the play-doh like blobs in Wall-E came to my mind too. πŸ˜€

  9. Fascinating areas of speculation, all. Those inchworms inspired my imagination (together with a glowworm) to create the Magitest Worm. When it arches, the middle lights up to tell how much of a witch-wizard you happen to be.
    Actually, we still generally do a pretty poor job of duplicating a lot of what Nature has perfected, don’t we?

  10. In Miami , Florida we consider summer to be June through end of September. The heat and humidity is absolutely crushing – seems like the Bataan Death March just to step outside from the AC.

  11. Am never sure if science and technology knows exactly where it is going and perhaps response and motors along,reacting to the world as a knee jerk reaction to everything it stumbles upon. Though it is great folly to hypothesize how man will evolve. Could be your on to something profound with this one. Man kind seems to think and view the world as a mental exercise that can be dissected, deciphered and intellectually reasoned then he can control it -sway destiny. This can can now all be done with out leaving the lab. So it is possible mankind will develop enormous heads, flat butts, a muscle-less body leaving only the skeleton -like some kind of science fiction alien being from another plant. Imagine that.

  12. Only one fly at a picnic?! Felix would hate Australia πŸ™‚
    How interesting about the inchworm and the inchworm robot.
    Eugene Polley has a lot to answer for – couch potatoes and marital spats, for starters

    1. I know: when Phil’s out for the evening I always enjoy taking full control of the remote. Apparently the Hunger Games started with a remote exercise: flipping between a games show and a war programme, late at night, the boundaries became blurred…

  13. Very science fiction in your final thoughts! I sometimes wonder what’s happening to my “outer shell” do to so much sitting at the computer. I think I’ve become a couch potato without watching TV! To me THAT is getting scary! I’ve never actually seen an inchworm, Kate, so I enjoyed the photo and the facts. Lots to think about here! Debra

  14. The remote always makes me think of all those folk who are bed or wheelchair bound, but who can still have an element of control in their lives which would other wise be impossible. A wonderful invention…. until Cyclo gets hold of it.

    until Cyclo gets hold of it.

  15. the inch worm makes me smile…they are so fun to watch until they leave an odd trail of droppings on your hand… As for us, the thought has me imagining an old break dance move from the 80s, a la MJ

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