(s)cicada stories

The cicada [pronounced /sɪˈkeɪdə/] is an insect which spends either 13 or 17 years sleeping in the ground, comes out for five weeks in the sun, then it dies. “The name is a direct derivation of the Latin cicada, meaning “buzzer”.

In classical Greek it was called a tettix, and in modern Greek tzitzikas—both names being onomatopoeic” (from the wikipedia entry where one can also hear the infamous relaxing and sociable buzz of cicadas).

The humble cicada has had its share of scientific fame when a research group from Japan published a mathematical model which attempts to explain one of nature’s mysteries, namely the cicada’s curiously accurate biological clock.

Softpedia reported on the study:

“Cicadas, which are relatively harmless insects, are also some of the most bizarre in the world. They live either 13 or 17 years, to the minute, and do not come out of the ground for about 99 percent of their life span….experts in Japan have managed to propose in the May 18th issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science a theory of why the insects are able to time their deaths so accurately. “Our hypothesis is that cicada emergences minimize overlap with the periodic cycles of their predators, like birds and small animals, which are 2 to 5 years. By choosing prime number, through evolution, cicadas avoid meshing with these shorter cycles,” Vanderbilt University Mathemetician Glenn Webb said. “

Wired has also carried a piece on the same fascinating study which attempts to tie together evolutionary theory, biology and the theory of prime numbers to explain nature’s wisdom.

Of course, cicadas are mostly famous and loved for their characteristically engaging sound buzz, a song to many people living mainly in areas with warm climate , renowned even in Ancient Greece:

“The entomologist has laboured hard to show us that the insect has no voice, and that the “drowsy hum” is made by the wings; a fact which, being beyond all cavil, puts to the blush the old-world story of Plutarch, who tells us that when Terpander was playing upon the lyre, at the Olympic games, and had enraptured his audience to the highest pitch of enthusiasm a string of his instrument broke, and a cicada or grasshopper perched on the bridge supplied by its voice the loss of the string and saved the fame of the musician.”

The Strand Magazine: Volume VII, Issue 37. January, 1894. An Illustrated Monthly, [quote from the Wordnik entry on cicadas]