A new study by researchers at RMIT University in Australia analyzes a recently discovered letter by Albert Einstein and its discussion of the link between physics and biology decades before evidence emerged on the subject.
The 1949 letter discusses the senses of bees and birds and alludes to a "physical process which is not yet known."
As the researchers point out in their study, the physical processes behind the behaviors of several biological species are being studied today to understand the natural world, and also develop technologies based on behaviors that have been fine-tuned over millennia.
Particularly, recent discoveries in migratory birds back up Einstein's thinking some 72 years ago. In 2008, scientists published a study in The Royal Society that proved birds use a form of a magnetic compass to migrate and navigate the globe. For that study, the researchers fitted thrushes with radio transmitters and tracked them as they migrated.
Though the origin of this magnetic sense in birds is not yet fully understood, one theory — outlined in a study in the journal Nature in 2004 — points to the use of quantum randomness and entanglement, both of which are physics concepts that were first proposed by Albert Einstein.
'A new kind of sensory perception'
The letter, which was previously unpublished, was shared with the RMIT researchers by Judith Davys, the wife of the original recipient, radar researcher Glyn Davys.
The researchers behind the new study explained that the letter shows how Einstein predicted new discoveries in physics, born from the study of animals, decades ahead of time.
"Seven decades after Einstein proposed new physics might come from animal sensory perception, we're seeing discoveries that push our understanding about navigation and the fundamental principles of physics," RMIT Associate Professor Adrian Dyer said in a press statement.
The letter, which was validated by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where Einstein donated his records, is also a historical document that proves Einstein met with Nobel laureate Karl von Frisch, a leading bee and animal sensory researcher in his time.
In his letter, Einstein says "it is thinkable that the investigation of the behavior of migratory birds and carrier pigeons may someday lead to the understanding of some physical process which is not yet known."
This letter might not rank particularly high on the list of Einstein's most notable inventions and theories.
Still, more than 70 years later, research is providing new insight into the processes that allow migratory birds to navigate the globe and fly thousands of kilometers to a precise location. The processes used by animals also continuously inform new technologies, including drone flight and underwater fish-like robots.