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. 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 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.