Skip to content
Science, Maths & Technology

How do flies walk on ceilings? - Diary

Updated Friday 2nd June 2006

Adam, some Australians, a pair of magnets - it all comes together in our ceiling-walkers diary.

Building the Science Shack Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

October 22nd
The Science Shack is put up for the first time outside the magnificent Magna Science Centre

Try and guess which of the two buildings had just won the Royal Institute of British Architects' national award for the most impressive building of the year?

Inside the shack Adam will explain the scientific principles explored in 'How do flies walk on the ceiling?' before this afternoon's attempts in The Big Build to walk upside down.

The Science Shack stands as a monument to the idea behind the series, as series director Paul Bader explained amidst a confused team of shed builders who seemed to have lost the instructions:

'You ask us a scientific question and we'll do the experiment to answer it. So no matter how ambitious or ludicrous or silly we'll build the thing for you'

October 23rd
7am
Adam arrives bursting with energy as ever and approves the shack design.

8am
In the Magna workshop the scaffolding for the upside down racetrack is almost built ready for this afternoon's test run.

9am
Plastic tubes attached to yoghurt pots, four vacuum cleaners, suction pads and magnets are strewn across the shed floor as Adam prepares to make sense of it all.

10am
Frogs and geckos arrive.

11am
Adam meets the frogs and geckos.

12 noon
Adam confronts the Australian flying frogs and explains how they use their whole bodies as suction cups to walk upside down.

The BBC and the Open University are not responsible for the content of external websites

 
Boots made for walking - on ceilings Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

October 23rd - after noon
2pm
Adam and the geckos - no, not a rock'n'roll band. He explains how their extraordinary sub-molecular foot technology keeps them crawling across the hotel ceiling.

Warwick Vardy Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission 4pm
Our geckos and frogs were lent to us by Warwick Vardy of Oxford who has been collecting and breeding rare amphibians and reptiles ever since he was thirteen. 'I don't really like lending my animals out for filming as it encourages people to import them and they can get stressed out' says Warwick, 'but I don't mind if it's educational like Science Shack'.

His first love was the very rare Red Kneed Tarantula which was officially said to be extinct in its native Mexico. A local British pet shop owner gave him what the owner thought was a dying Red Kneed Tarantula. On taking it home Warwick discovered it was on its back because it was engaged in the quite normal annual shedding of its skin.

He later discovered it came with some other tiny ones the pet owner hadn't seen in the vivarium. Soon Warwick had bred hundreds of the blighters! He offered to repopulate Mexico with Red Kneed Tarantulas but the officials he spoke to did not take up his offer.

If you are a Mexican government official contact us now and (if you go down on your knees) Warwick will forgive you and help repopulate your beautiful country with Red Kneed spiders.

5.30pm
This afternoon Adam met hundreds of flies and Dr Hywell Jones, a tribologist at the University of Sheffield Hallam. Which means he makes a living observing how things rub against things.

Ceramics, plastics, you name it. All crucial for understanding how all types of machinery work. To do the observing he uses a very powerful electron microscope.

Hywell Jones Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission For Science Shack he abandoned his beloved scuffed ceramics and took some amazing pictures of flies' feet. They have hairs and claws and two suction looking thingies - all very well designed.

6.30pm
As you may have noticed our walking on the ceiling practice hasn't yet taken place! Filming ALWAYS takes longer than you expect. But the hook-and-eye boots, the magnets, the vacuum cleaners, and the scaffolding are ready and waiting for the 'suckers' to arrive tomorrow.

 
Magnetic boots Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team

October 24th
Today Adam gets to grips with the difficult bit - trying to get humans to walk on the ceiling. The Science Shack team have been hammering, glueing and welding things together in preparation for today's upside down Olympics - will any of their contraptions work?

8:30am
One gadget is the magnetic switch system which uses a battery strapped to Adam's waist and two electromagnets. In the morning's test just two of them proved strong enough to carry his weight.

10am
Adam asked the visitors to the Magna centre how exactly they thought flies come in to land on the ceiling. Do they get there by walking on the wall? Do they fly upside down and land? Or do they flip upside down just at the point of impact with the ceiling? What do you think?

The team from The Walk About pub Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission 12 noon
Volunteers arrive to walk on ceiling.

1pm
First volunteers arrive from 'The Walkabout' pub in Sheffield. The Producer wanted Australians because of their recognised upside down walking skills. So our researchers scoured Sheffield and Rotherham for Aussies. And we can tell you that finding an Aussie in Sheffield is like finding ice in the desert.

But our brilliant researcher Lou finally found a local pub called 'The Walkabout', an Australian pub. So she walked in (the right way up) and recruited Aussie barman Allan Mitchell and two Brit colleagues Will Parkinson and Amy Rowson who, in their own words, were 'well up for it'.

1.30pm
Mira our on-site nurse checks all volunteers for blood pressure and quizzes them about their health history. She advises them to keep walking upside down (or hanging) to a maximum of 90 seconds at a time. Her medical explanation of the benefits of topsy turviness is 'it is a stupid thing to want to do'. But this is Science Shack.

2pm
The team are putting the finishing touches (and even some of the starting ones) to the walking contraptions some of which they are building for the first time. None of these 'Wrong Trousers' have been tested yet with a human being attached.

Jem and Chris our inventive, fix-it, build-it, super-heroes have discovered that if you fix a big box to a Dyson cleaner it generates enough pull to hold you to the ceiling. But how will they get this contraption to fit to your boots?

2.30pm
Ian and Dave Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission Our Industrial Rope Access experts Ian Harrison and David Hesleden test out the hook-and-eye boots before we inflict poor barwoman Amy with them. They have grave doubts about them - mainly because of the immense strength they reckon you need to stamp each foot to the ceiling.

Ian says the best system might be the electromagnets. 'I've worked with those', he says, 'we use them to stick heavy machinery like the drills we use to the sides of skyscrapers'. He also thinks the suction pads might work which he uses to stick himself to glass windows on buildings like Canary Wharf. Each pad operated only with the strength of your thumb pumping a handle gadget creates enough suction to stick 200 kilos to the ceiling!

3pm
Amy is the first to try out our high tech boots. She gets one foot well stuck but becomes unstuck trying to stick the other foot to the ceiling. She also describes a strange psychological effect - when you are upside down, she says, you stop knowing which foot is which. Our hook-and-eye boots have the added problem of long levers to unstick each foot which get all tangled up in the ropes.

4pm
Will tests out the foot pumps and sticks tightly to the ceiling but he, too, is defeated by the psychological task of remembering which foot is which. But the conclusion is that this is a feasible system which would definitely work with a bit of practice. Don't try this at home - it will pull the plaster off the ceiling.

Amy gets to grips with being upside down Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Used with permission 5pm
Allan swings from the ceiling from a Dyson cleaner attached to a big board on wheels and using two ski pole things shoots across the ceiling. Extremely effective (and the most unlikely success story!).

6pm
The walking on the ceiling attempts finish with a fantastic flourish as Sarah uses magnets to defy gravity. After coming back down to earth she is ecstatic to find out she is the winner! Another success for Science Shack!

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?