The Broader Context of Swatting Flies

obama-could-hurt-a-fly-the-caucus-blog-nytimescomA couple of weeks back, President Obama swatted a fly in the White House. It did not go unnoticed in the media. Since this blog is about global trends, it would be remiss if I didn’t cover this important event and put it in the context of fly-swatting around the world.

The President is clearly a fit man with great reflexes. During the election campaign he sank a three pointer on demand for the camera which earned him my everlasting admiration. This time he swatted a fly that was bothering him during an interview in the White House. Nailing a fly is never easy, however, I am somewhat skeptical about the bona fides of the White House fly. Was it a house fly? If so, is it possible that the North American house fly is an entirely different species from the flies that I grew up with in India? They do look somewhat fat and happy over here, compared to the lean, mean third world variety. I don’t believe – and I say this from considerable experience – that a human being can swat one of those Indian flies with their hands. With a fly swatter, maybe, but not your bare hands. I mean no disrespect to the Prez, but that fly was not the real thing.

The science behind fly swatting was revealed to me in an article in Cosmos, a science magazine.

Long before the fly leaps, its tiny ‘brain’ calculates the location of the impending threat, comes up with an escape plan, and places its legs in an optimal position to hop out of the way in the opposite direction. All of this action takes place within about 100 milliseconds after the fly first spots the swatter.

In other words, the fly flies away from the threat and is quite quick about it. Now, flying away from a threat is not exactly great insight (although watching it on high-speed video must have been fun). For example, if I encounter a family of dangerous Canadian Geese on my running trail, I come up with an escape plan and place my legs in an optimal position to hop out of the way in the opposite direction, exactly the way Cosmos describes it. So flies aren’t unique in this respect. I guess what makes flies special is the speed with which they make the decision and act upon it.

The physics of the fly swatter are not explained in the article, but if I were to take a stab at it, it must be about two things:

  1. The whiplash effect of the swatter creates very high speeds at the business end of the swatter.
  2. The holes in the swatter don’t create the envelope of rushing air that a hand or a flicked tail would create. This points to the possibility that it is not just the sight of the impending threat, but also the envelope of rushing air that tips the fly off.

We had lots of flies to contend with in the small town in India that I grew up in. With no TV (we didn’t get a strong enough signal until I left for college), no video games and very hot summers, it became necessary to kill the ennui with something, anything, more interesting than breathing. During one of those hot summers I discovered that while I could not swat flies with a rolled up newspaper or my bare hands there was a better way.

The technique – Scoop and Stun – which was even superior to a fly swatter. The way it works is that you anticipate the fly flying away from your hand and catch it in mid air. You then throw the fly down hard on the floor. The fly dies from the impact without creating a mess and you can just sweep it away. Another advantage of this technique is that you can target flies sitting on stuff that you won’t be able to swat because you don’t want to break it.

While we celebrate the lightning reflexes of the American president, Indians can rest assured that their politicians are unlikely to follow in his footsteps. Swatting flies in Hindi – “makkhiyan marna” – is a colloquial phrase that means sitting around doing nothing. Being shown swatting flies on TV can make a politician look bad. It’s not as bad as having shoes thrown at you in press conferences, but is still avoidable.


  1. Varun says:

    Now I am wondering, which one is better, Trends in voter bribery or this one 😀


  2. Surya says:

    I go with voter bribery


  3. raj says:

    Basab, I read you so often and your name is discussed so often in Cognizant sales meets ….


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