Brian Thomas writes Magnetic Spider Webs Attract Scientists’ Attention. He means electrical, not magnetic, but we’ll forgive him that one and move on.
Spider webs have electrical properties that help them attract insects: a paper last year noted that positively charged objects are more attracted to the silk than neutral objects. This is unsurprising, as weak electrostatic charges build up all the time simply from different materials rubbing together. Thomas says:
How did spiders learn to manufacture advanced microelectronics? Victor Ortega-Jimenez told UC Berkeley, “Electrostatic charges are everywhere, and we propose that this may have driven the evolution of specialized webs.” But has anyone ever observed electrostatic charges being the catalyst for the invention of new technology?
His response is nonsensical: it is a mess made of a pair of creationist tropes mixed together so as to become gibberish. That’s a little less forgiveable, as we’ve already established that these articles get edited by at least two people for clarity if not accuracy.
It’s not immediately obvious to someone just reading his words without digging deeper, but Thomas has gotten himself into a bit of a tangle when it comes to explaining how each of the three papers he is discussion interrelate. For example, he says:
The web is negatively or neutrally charged, while insect bodies often carry a positive charge.
Given the aforementioned results, i.e. that it attracts positively charged insects, it would make sense that the web might be negatively charged. But his second, more recent study discovered that webs are in fact equally attracted to both positively and negatively charged objects, and are overall electrically neutral. It is not that the web has a permanent electrostatic charge that attracts particles, but that it is electrically conductive and so creates an attractive field opposite to that of whatever is approaching it.* This is a bit more complicated than a mere electrostatic charge, but Thomas still shouldn’t be dismissing the idea that evolution could produce the system.
The third paper is about how pollen, also attracted to the webs at least in part by electromagnetism, is intentionally eaten by some spiders. As Kathy Orlinsky explains this means that the spiders are technically omnivores, though it’s not clear what benefit the spiders are gaining from this activity. Thomas seems to think that this was a result of the second study (he doesn’t even cite the third), which talked about nothing of the sort, and that the observation that pollen sticks to webs was itself novel (it isn’t). It’s all very confusing.
But then we get to the final couple of paragraphs:
The webs even trap certain chemicals. “It’s a great bonus for us that this also causes them to attract pollutants, making them a cheap and natural way of tracking pesticides and air quality around the world,” [main author of paper #2 Fritz] Vollrath said.
So, the next time you find yourself peeling a spider web off your face and feel tempted to curse their existence, remember that before you destroyed it, that spider silk was cleaning our air.
What Thomas seems to have forgotten, as he hammered out this short and uninsightful article earlier in the month, is that there is a significant difference between a (potential) tool for measurement and a tool designed to effect change.
Consider a rain gauge: in measuring the level of precipitation that has fallen since you last remembered to check it these devices store a small quantity of water and in so doing prevent it reaching the ground.** But this tiny change in effective rainfall pales in comparison to that caused by a simple umbrella, and is no substitute for a roof over your head. Close proximity to a gauge will not protect your garden from unseasonal flooding, I’m sorry to say. That’s not the kind of thing it does.
Similarly, the small amounts of chemicals that collect on the millions of spider webs worldwide are unlikely to be making a dent on the levels of atmospheric pollutants, however good they might be at recording them. As a person who suffers from hayfever I have to say that if this is God’s idea of a fix then he’s a pretty bad contractor. I’ll stick with antihistamines.
*Imagine that we have a positively charged insect approaching the web. The web may not have a net charge of its own, but the insect still attracts electrons from the surrounding area. If the web is conductive then electrons from a further away can travel to the near part of the web, creating a temporary negative charge which attracts the web to the insect, and vice versa.
**Unless you have a fancy weather system that automatically sends the information to your computer and then empties itself, in which case why not just go online to get that info?