Tonight my daughter Alexis and I had the pleasure of attending a Watson lecture on the subject of "How Flies Fly", given by Michael Dickinson in the venerable Beckman Auditorium at Caltech. It was a great lecture; Michael hit just the right note between serious technical research and general interest discussion. Lots of decent nerd humor, too.
It turns out that flies are remarkable little machines. About 10% of all animal species on Earth are flies, so they are incredibly successful. They're the number one way sunlight gets turned into protein (by eating and digesting plants). And one of the most interesting things about flies is how they fly. Insect wings are nothing like bird wings; they are basically flat surfaces used to "bat" the air around. In flight the wing is angled one way, waved through the air (pushing air down and the insect up), and then angled the other way and waved back, doing the same thing. This enables insects to hover, move straight up and down, turn on a dime, and generally do whatever they want in the air. The neuro-mechanical interplay that enables this to happen is well understood and through a series of fascinating experiments Dr. Dickinson and his team have begun to understand how flies "think"; that is, the processing that goes on in the central nervous system which links fly vision to fly flight muscles. Amazing and thought-provoking.
For more information please see the Dickinson Lab website, which includes some of the high-speed stop action movies Michael showed during his talk.