Keeping your world up and running.®

A tall tale

and some incredible true ones

By Chuck Newcombe

Ok, I’ll admit it. I was having a little fun at my young daughter’s expense. Our family was hiking on one of my favorite desert trails in western Nevada when she was about seven years old. She spotted a lizard running through the sagebrush and asked me what kind it was. Without hesitation I said, “That’s a stick lizard.” That led to the question, “Why is it called that?”

And so the story unfolded. The stick lizard carries a short stick crosswise in his mouth as he runs across the hot desert. When his feet get so hot he can’t stand it, he jams the stick in the ground and climbs up to cool them off.

That would have been the end of the story, except that a few months later, my daughter had to present for show and tell at school. And she told, of course, about her summer adventure when she saw the stick lizard, and she apparently described it in great detail. When the teacher suggested that maybe I might have been joking with her, my loyal daughter said, “My dad doesn’t lie.” Now a grandmother, she still occasionally reminds me of that embarrassing day.

The thing is, you don’t have to make up stories with all the wonders that we can discover about our planet. The truth is amazing enough.

Infrared sensors

As users of Fluke non-contact thermometers and thermal imaging tools can tell you, looking at the world in the infrared portion of the spectrum can be very useful in our day to day maintenance activities, such as looking for hot spots. But, it’s a critical part of the life of a rattlesnake, one of the strange critters I learned to live with as a child.

The rattlesnake is a “pit viper,” which means that it has a small pit that detects infrared energy on each cheek, just in front of the eye. In particular, the snake uses the pit to detect heat energy from its prey. And, it can do this at night, when its eyes are not all that effective. Read the fascinating details here:

Snakes' heat vision enables accurate attacks on prey »

Magnetic sensors

As a Fluke tool user, you may also be familiar with our family of dc current probes that use Hall-effect magnetic detectors to extract dc current information from the associated magnetic fields. You may also have observed that you can detect slight changes in the zero of the probe by slowly rotating it. It reacts as a compass might in the earth’s magnetic field.

But, did you know that a homing pigeon may use its ability to detect changes in magnetic fields as part of its homing mechanism? I observed this about thirty years ago, when a Fluke engineer named Clem and I were traveling to a naval base about 30 miles from our office. Clem, it turned out, raised and raced homing pigeons. He had a cage full of them along for the ride. We stopped outside the gate and Clem released the birds. At first, they circled above us. Then, one by one, they veered off and headed east, in the general direction of home. Magnetic fields were probably not the only thing they relied on for their journey, but Clem was convinced that magnetic sensing played a part, because their behavior was the same at night when the sky was overcast.

Since then, scientists have discovered a magnetic sensing capability located in the back of the pigeon’s beak that may help it orient itself with the earth’s magnetic field, as noted in this article.

It's all in the beak: scientists find secret of homing pigeons' magnetic maps »

Position sensing and ranging

Now think about Fluke’s three distance measuring tools. These are precision laser operated devices that are in effect, non-contact tape measures. They are the modern, hand-held adaptation of the precision equipment that revolutionized land surveying many years ago. The technology is known as LIDAR - Light Detection and Ranging - and it measures the time that it takes for light to travel to and return from a target.

In nature, the principle is nothing new - bats and whales have long used a similar method based on sound. Today we call it SONAR - Sound Navigation and Ranging. Leonardo da Vinci is thought to have experimented with the idea in the 1700s.

Wikipedia - Sonar »

Vibration sensing

Coming this month to selected Fluke distributors is an exciting new tool: the recently announced model 810 Vibration Tester. This fascinating device uses a three axis accelerometer to detect vibration in three directions. Then, it sorts out the information, gauges the severity of the vibration and leads a technician to a cause - be it unbalance, misalignment, or another problem suggested by the tool software.

It’s a neat new tool, but it’s an old idea, as demonstrated by a spider as it builds and uses its web to catch dinner. A clever animation describes the spider’s web building process in detail here:

How Spiders Work »

I could go on, but I think you get the idea by now. Whether it’s a fluorescing material once used for displays in a meter, or many of the other attributes of our handy Fluke products, we owe much of what we have invented in today’s technologies to the examples set by our earthly neighbors. Think about it the next time you walk into a spider web in your garden.