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March 2, 2003

Daedalus and the ant
Posted by Teresa at 09:00 PM *

Everybody knows the story: Daedalus escapes from the labyrinth of King Minos, and holes up with King Cocalus of Syracuse. To track him down, Minos offers a big reward to anyone who can run a thread through the internal spirals of a conch shell. He figures only Daedalus could do that, so whoever brings in a solution will know where to find him.

He’s right. Daedalus, archetypal engineering geek, sees only the problem and its solution, not that it’s a trap.”*”: His solution: He drills a small hole into the center of the shell, ties a fine thread to the rear leg of an ant, sets the ant inside the lip of the shell, and smears honey around the edges of the hole he’s drilled. The ant crawls through the shell to reach the honey, carrying the thread with it.

King Cocalus takes the shell to Minos to claim the reward. Minos demands that he turn over the man who threaded the conch. Trouble ensues. Daedalus prevails. End of story.

I woke up this morning with that story in my head, and found it bothered me. Ants locate food by wandering around aimlessly until they stumble over it. They only move purposefully when they already know where the food is. But even if they did move purposefully toward the honey, it seems to me that the increasing friction of the thread as it wrapped around all those successive spirals would eventually be more than the ant could overcome.

Is there a better way to do it? I laid in bed and thought about it. If you’re allowed to modify the shell by drilling a hole in it, you could attach the thread to a small dense weight, put it in at the drilled hole, and tip and shake it until the weighted end emerged at the lip of the shell. Even better, you could make the small weight out of iron, and use a very strong magnet to pull it in the required direction while you slowly rotate the shell. Or you could attach the thread to the center of a small flat lightweight disk, put it in the lip of the shell, and put the nozzle of a vacuum cleaner hose against the drilled hole. (Okay, if you’re Daedalus you don’t use a vacuum cleaner. Probably you rig something clever involving bellows.) Or, if you thought the ants could pull hard enough to overcome the friction of the thread, you could run a single line of honey from one opening to the other, let the ants at it for a while, and only renew the honey at the drilled end. Eventually they’d have cleaned up all the interim honey, and will be doing the whole spiral trip to get to the honey at the other end. Then you tie a thread to one of them.

There is an answer. It is not unique.

Thinking about Daedalus makes me think about mazes and labyrinths. I collect interesting antonyms, like vacuum, plenum and magister, minister (but not herb, forb). Anyway, it seems to me that maze or labyrinth, rather than territory, is the proper antonym for map.

Also, what is it about Daedalus, mazes, and thread? There’s the business with the shell, of course; but he also built the Labyrinth, which Theseus made his way through with the help of a ball of thread. If I were Roberto Calasso, author of the unspeakably brilliant The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, I’m sure I could see what that’s about. Suggestions will as always be appreciated.

Comments on Daedalus and the ant:
#1 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: March 02, 2003, 10:22 PM:

I suppose you could saw the shell open, run the thread through, then glue it back together.

Wasn't it a specific conch shell? Otherwise you might be able to start with a very young conch. Be tough to keep the thread in there without it rotting or breaking over time.

You could use a cockroach instead of an ant. Roaches reflexively run away when an air current hits the little hairs on their legs, so tie the thread to the roach, drop it in the shell, and blow into the large opening.

#2 ::: Damien Warman ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2003, 02:51 AM:

I think this bears close thinking on. Will try to remember to come back to it.

I imagine you already have Sladek's Maps.

#3 ::: James D. Macdonald ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2003, 11:05 AM:

King Minos was sitting at Knossos, waiting for Daedalus to show up.

Imagine the look of surprise on his face when Alexander the Great walked in, put down a conch shell, split it in half with his sword, laid a thread across the pieces, and said "Hi. You've just been conqueored. Your first load of tribute is due. Have a nice day."

Alexander then walked out of the palace.

#4 ::: Scott ::: (view all by) ::: March 03, 2003, 02:49 PM:

The guillotine joke in the link is extremely similar to a scene in the Kaufman/Gershwin musical satire Let 'Em Eat Cake. I wonder whether one of them somehow mutated into the other, or if they both sprang from some common source.

#5 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2003, 12:13 PM:

First of all:
"I laid in bed and thought about it."
No comment.
To say that ants locate food by "random movement" is not, I think, strictly true. I haven't read anything specifically on this, but I assume their mechanism is similar to that of a flea locating warmth. I could explain it much easier in a drawing, but let's just say it works something like this: the ant can sense something sweet nearby (bees can; ants probably can too). But where? 1. Crawl in a random direction. 2. Getting warmer or colder? (like the children's game) If colder, change direction randomly. If warmer or the same, continue. This will produce a course that looks like a lot of random changes but actually zeroes in on the source.

#6 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2003, 12:16 PM:

And, of course, within the tight confines of the shell, which the ant will continually run up against, the process is also herded toward the center.

#7 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: March 04, 2003, 02:16 PM:

I think Robert has a point. Sugar itself isn't volatile, but some of the other components of nectar are, so if there was any air flowing in the hole the scent would be carried through all the turns to the ant; this would tend to lead the ant through the spirals of the shell even if this path were very indirect. I understand the polish on the inside of the conch shell is natural, so an ant might might be able to pull the thread if you kept it away from the outer lip (which is ragged).

But I love James's image even if it's >1000 years out of whack....

#8 ::: barb ::: (view all by) ::: March 05, 2003, 05:12 PM:

You did WHAT in bed?

#9 ::: Shalanna Collins ::: (view all by) ::: April 07, 2003, 04:16 AM:

And there's always Ariadne and her involvement in the maze--you know, the thread that she gave to her boyfriend. . . the whole Minotaur thing. That's the same legend/storyline, done differently. Or am I confusing things?

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