Why did Icarus fall?



Somewhere between reality and fiction, contemporary science and mythology, this investigation offers a different reading of the "In the Air, Flying Machines" exhibition, singling out fourteen of the works on display to develop fourteen speculative hypotheses on the fall of Icarus.

Each of these hypotheses stands on its own. What clues do these works reveal about our relationship with machines and science, about our technological heritage at a time when it has become so difficult to project ourselves into a desirable future? What is our relationship to time and space, to the irreversibility of the fall? So even if you come across Alice's white rabbit running up and declaring "Oh dear! I shall be too late!" take your own Time and lose yourself in parallel dimensions, where these cards are the doors.

Jean-Marc Chomaz

Artist-physicist, CNRS Research Director, Professor at the École Polytechnique.



Purpose: to avoid the crash of a flying aircraft

Designer: artisan engineer Daedalus

Pilot: Icare

Accident report :

Centuries before our era, in ancient Greece, the craftsman engineer Daedalus and his son Icarus carry out the first test of a flying machine and take off from the Labyrinth in Crete. King Minos had locked them up to punish Daedalus for revealing to Ariadne the solution to entering and exiting the Labyrinth: a thread, which the handsome Theseus hangs on the door of the labyrinth, unwinds behind him and follows to go back.

An hour after take-off, the aircraft piloted by Icarus crashed into the sea. Icarus had chosen a different aerial route from Daedalus, who flew low over the water. Icarus, on the other hand, was flying high. Daedalus pays no attention to his son, who may have been intoxicated by the flight and wanted to see the Earth from the sky.


Official thesis...
and scientific controversy :

The official theory is that the pilot was responsible, having climbed so high that the wax holding the feathers to his wings melted.

However, this thesis does not stand up to scientific analysis, as the Sun is too far from the Earth, even in mythological times, for the heat of its light to vary as it rises through the atmosphere. On the contrary, we all know from experience that the temperature decreases rapidly as we rise into the metallic blue of the sky. In the mountains, the decrease averages two degrees (2°C) as you rise 300 meters, and 12°C less at 2000 meters, so it's best to dress warmly!


The investigation is open!

Through a wide range of drawings, models, sculptures, videos and installations, explore this exhibition like an investigation led by a large number of artists and scientists.

A secret investigation whose evidence is still encoded by the weight of the official thesis, which puts the blame on the son's unconsciousness and clears the father, the system, the machine, the mechanics, physics and the unconscious just as much as man, his technology and his gods.


Assumption N°1 

Turbulence, absolute instability of the wing wake and transient growth of disturbances in the boundary layers on the upper and lower surface of the wing (inner and outer surfaces in relation to the wing camber).

The poet Ovid describes how Daedalus attaches bird feathers to the wings, "arranging the feathers in order, taking the smallest first; each is less long than the next, and all rise by an insensible gradation... Daedalus attaches these feathers, in the middle, with linen, at their tips with wax; he then gives them a slight curve, the better to imitate the wing of birds. [1] "

Feathers rising on a bird's wing to prevent extension of the area where the flow is separated [2].

But recent research[2][3][4] have shown that the stability of the flow around the bird's wings depends on the mobility of the feathers. Owls' wing feathers control the flow so well that their flight becomes silent, without the sound of turbulent air friction, without the fricative consonants produced by vortices.

The feathers of Daedalus' machine would then have been too tightly bound together, creating a fatal instability for Icarus who, changing altitude, experienced other flight regimes than Daedalus.

Fossils of winged dinosaurs show the evolution of feather attachments, probably to optimize gliding stability and fly further.

[1 ] Ovid, Metamorphoses VIII verses 236-259; [2] D. Bechert, M. Bruse, W. Hage et al, "Biological surfaces and their technological application-laboratory and flight experiments on drag reduction and separation control," in 28th Fluid Dynamics Conference, Snowmass Village, CO, USA, 1997; [3] Lishu Hao , Yongwei Gao , Binbin Wei , and Ke Song, "Numerical Simulation of Flow over Bionic Airfoil" International Journal of Aerospace Engineering, Volume 2021, Article ID 5556463 ; [4] Artur Reiswich, Max Finster, Martin Heinrich, Rüdiger Schwarze, "Stereo vision investigation of elastic flap kinematics inseparated flow" Journal of Fluids and Structures 114 (2022) 103711


Assumption No. 2

The creator is surpassed by his creation: the automaton

Daedalus is human, but initiated by the gods, he dreams of being a demiurge (creator of the universe) and a thaumaturge (miracle-worker). Like automatons or robots, the statues he forges, the agalmata, seem intent on moving and imitating life.

Perhaps this flying machine, created by Daedalus, should have been tethered to prevent it from losing control and, believing itself autonomous, escaping.

Today, model aircraft still sometimes have to be tied up to prevent them from escaping and causing a fatal accident.


Assumption No. 3

The air gap, or the weight of emptiness


Experiment: take a rectangular frame, dip it in soapy water, remove it gently to keep a film of soap stretched over the frame, place the frame vertically, take a very fine hair and knot it to form a loop, dip the loop in the film of soap, with a needle, pierce the film inside the loop. Instantly, the loop of hair stretches to form a two-dimensional balloon.

The nothing inside the balloon is lighter than the film of soap in which it is immersed, as if Archimedes' buoyancy were valid in the two-dimensional mini-atmosphere constituted by the film of soap.

The "air" hole, trapped by the hair, rises in the film, attracted by a force equal to the weight of the soap membrane that would occupy the inside of the loop if the needle hadn't pierced it.

An air gap could have caused Icarus' aircraft to fall, resulting in an accident.

J.-M. Chomaz, "Terra Bulla, the influence of Yves Couder on the emerging domain of arts and physics sciences", Comptes Rendus Mécanique, Vol. 348, pp.447-456 (2020)

In a film of soap stretched vertically on a pewter gift, an empty surface surrounded by a curl of hair rises, leaving behind thousands of swirls. The shiny black streaks are the film's equally thick bangs, which appear through light interference when the film is illuminated with monochromatic light, in this case emitted by a sodium lamp.

Y. Couder, J.M. Chomaz, Marc Rabaud. On the hydrodynamics of soap films. Physica D: Nonlinear Phenomena, 1989, 37 (1-3), pp.384-405.


Assumption No. 4

Wing stability, stalling and spinning

Aircraft design error


As with the first Rogallo-type delta-shaped flying wings of the 1970s, and those designed for the first airplanes, wings that aren't stiff enough lose lift at a certain angle of attack, and fall into a spin with no way of righting the craft.

This situation could have happened to Icarus if, after having climbed higher than Daedalus, he had wanted to come back towards him and then dive downwards. Responsibility for the crash would then lie with the designer and his ignorance of the stability properties of wings in those early days.


Hypothesis N°5

A thermal plume is said to have carried off Icarus


Centuries after Daedalus, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle[1] [2] theorized the order of the cosmos. The Earth is spherical at the center of an enclosed Heaven, also spherical. In the sublunary realm, each of the four elements that make up all terrestrial matter possesses an intrinsic quality: gravity, earth and water move towards the center of the Earth, while air and fire move towards the periphery of the sublunary world.

The ordering of this ancient cosmos could explain Daedalus' recommendation to his son: stay between water and air, so as not to go up or down, and above all avoid the fire at the very top.

In the modern view, hot air above a wheat field or a sunlit cliff rises to form thermal plumes. These are known as "heat pumps". Paragliders and gliders know them well, as they draw them up, draw them down and draw them up....

But Daedalus and Icarus were still unaware of the physics of Aristotle and today's scientists. A thermal plume could have carried Icarus upwards, thanks to the ascent quality of the fire. Lighter than his father, Icarus would have climbed higher and his wings would have melted, before reaching the Moon's trajectory.

Hot-air balloons use the antigravitational qualities of fire to fly "lighter than air", which for Aristotle represents fire.

The first "lighter-than-air" machine took off on September 19, 1783. Designed by Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier, it consisted of a piece of cloth laminated with paper on both sides, which, inflated by a fire of wool and wet straw, took the shape of a balloon 13m in diameter, to which was attached a wicker basket carrying a sheep, a duck and a rooster.

[1 ] Aristotle, 2004. Treatise on Heaven, trans. C. Dalimier and P. Pellegrin, Paris, Flammarion, 465p.

[2] Eventually quotation: "Below this ethereal and divine nature, thus ordered and, as we have said, immutable, inalterable, impassible, is placed the mutable and passible nature, in a word, corruptible and mortal. It has several species, the first of which is a subtle, inflammable essence, ignited by the mass and rapid movement of ethereal substance. It is in the igneous, disordered region that luminous phenomena, fiery arrows, fiery rods and chasms shine; it is here that comets are fixed, and often extinguished.
Beneath this region is the air, dark and cold by nature, which heats up, ignites and becomes luminous through movement. It is in the region of the air, which is permeable and alterable in every way, that clouds condense, rain forms, snow, frost and hail fall to earth. It is the home of stormy winds, whirlwinds, thunder, lightning and a thousand other phenomena.

Aristotle, Letter from Aristotle to Alexander, chapter II, § 1-9, tr. fr. Charles Batteux, revised and corrected by M. Hoefer, Lefèbre, 1843


Hypothesis N°6

The is surpassed by his creation: the cyborg


In his fascination with his art and the technologies he invented, Daedalus created the first cyborg, half woman and half machine, for Pasiphae, wife of Minos, King of Crete.

Minos refused to kill the magnificent white bull he had asked Poseidon to sacrifice.

Enraged Poseidon has inspired Pasiphae's irrepressible desire for the fabulous animal. Using all his wiles and artistry, Daedalus creates a cyborg, a mechanical cow or Pasiphae to seduce the bull.

The result was Asterion, a half-man, half-bull hybrid known as the Minotaur. Minos then asked Daedalus to control the aberrant creature he had helped create. Daedalus then imagined the Labyrinth, an illusion of perspective that loses the mind and imprisons the body.

But he deceives Minos again by giving the solution to the Labyrinth to Ariadne, daughter of the king and Pasiphae, who wants to save Theseus. Tie a thread to the front door, unwind the ball and follow it backwards to return to the door once the Minotaur has been killed.

Minos locks Daedalus and his son in the Labyrinth, but Daedalus invents a new man-bird-machine hybrid, enabling them to escape by air from Crete.[1]

But is it conceivable that the machine part of the cyborg that is winged Icarus refused to obey the will of the human part, a technology beyond the control of its creator?

[1] Pherecyde, FGrHist 3 F 148 = Schol. Odyssey, XI, 322, Dindorf


Hypothesis N°7

Second accident due to the excessive weight of the flying machines


Legend has it that Daedalus, jealous of his nephew and apprentice Talos, who was about to surpass him in ingenuity (having invented the saw and compass at the age of just twelve), threw him from the top of Athena's temple on the Acropolis in Athens.

The goddess Athena then transformed Talos into a bird before he crashed.[1]. Instead of an attempted murder, perhaps this was the first attempt at flight. The first attempt at flight, and the first air crash that cost Talos his life.

Under this hypothesis, Daedalus would not have rushed Talos to his death. Talos, a test pilot who was lighter than Daedalus and equipped with a flying device, would have launched himself and unfortunately fallen.

The reconstitution of a wooden flying machine might make you think so! Of course, this is only speculation, as the first attempt at flight and the existence of such a machine are not recounted in any ancient account, only the reality of the fall but not the circumstances. Daedalus was the only human witness to Talos' nocturnal fall, and he erased all traces of it. But if this hypothesis is valid, the question remains: who, Talos or Daedalus, invented this fabulous first machine that fell from the sky, mowed down in the middle of a dream?

[1 ] Ovid, Metamorphoses VIII verses 236-259


Hypothesis N°8

Like a promise of movement: the arrival of Time

As we described in hypothesis 7 of this survey, in Aristotle's theory of the order of the cosmos, each of the four elements that make up all matter in the sublunary world moves at uniform speed in a straight line: either towards the center of the world for earth and water, or towards the periphery, a sphere on which the lunar orbit is inscribed, for air and fire, the speed of movement depending on the element in question. The space of the sublunary world is thus organized in concentric spatial strata: earth then water, air then fire.

The centripetal or centrifugal displacement quality of the four elements adds the dimension of Time, embodied by the God Chronos, to this Space.

But mythological accounts contradict each other when it comes to the arrival of Time and the subsequent fall of bodies: is Chronos the son of Gaia (Earth) and Hydros (the primordial Waters)? Did Chronos and Ananké, the goddess of Necessity, beget the gods Chaos, Aether and Phanes?

Or is it the other way around? Chronos, who, emerging from the Void, created Earth and Space through Nyx the goddess of night, who herself appeared with the primordial Chaos?

This confusion in the order of creation is in a sense logical, for causality does not take hold before the arrival of Time, and Time in turn does not exist without the emergence of Space, and, as in the modern vision, Time-Space, often erroneously named Space-Time, is then a single entity.

By making the first flight, by defying the fall, by flying high, it could be that Icarus forced Time-Space to be looked at as we do today only in the direction of Time, with the future ahead of us and the past behind our heads, and vice versa. This chrono-sculpture, in which Time is not yet separated from Space, can attest to this. It was imagined by the movement researcher, physiologist Étienne Jule Marey, who projected Time-Space no longer as a volume or image of Space at a given Time, but by accumulating several Times at the same point in Space. In this way, he invented the moving image, but to do so, he fractioned Time, superimposing a series of snapshots in his chronophotographs.


Hypothesis N°9

Like a promise of movement: gravity


For the ancient Greeks, falling was an intrinsic quality of the four elements: earth, water, air and fire. The challenge, then, for art as for science, is to make people perceive (before conceiving and representing the Time-Space of the world) the elements and their quality, as well as their potential falling movement. Daedalus achieved this with his sculptures, his agalmata, which seemed to want to move. The creation of flying machines is based on the same desire; they represent the promise of movement.

But the theory of the elements and their qualities, their uniform translation towards the ground or the sky, was wrong. Newton[1] demonstrated this error and proposed to move from potential motion to the promise of motion, a promise enshrined in the Principia Mathematica, the mathematical principles he constructed to describe the becoming of the cosmos. Thus, the laws of a mechanical world describe neither space, nor motion, nor the speed at which things move. These laws govern the promise of this displacement, the variation in the quantity of motion of objects, i.e. the derivative with respect to Time of the product of mass and velocity. The world is therefore not static (position, Space alone), nor merely kinematic (speed, Aristotle's Time-Space of uniform rectilinear motion), but dynamic (acceleration and forces, Newton's accelerating Time-Space). The falling of bodies is no longer a quality of the elements of which they are composed, but results from the acceleration, called gravity, which gives Time its displacement and the cosmos its law of universal attraction.

Daedalus' flying machine, piloted by Icarus, had been designed for a kinetic cosmos where falling was associated with a constant speed, calculated by the quality of the elements that make up everything. Daedalus had never imagined that gravity could be an acceleration, a force. Yet, looking at this flying machine frozen in suspended Time, we can perceive the promise of movement, the tension of the cable that opposes the imminence of the fall.

[1] Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica [archive], auctore Is. Newton, Londini, iussu Societatis Regiae ac typis Josephi Streater, anno MDCLXXXVII (editio princeps).- Principes mathématiques de la philosophie naturelle, translated into French by Émilie du Châtelet, 1756-17663 (read online at Gallica).


Assumption N°10

Pilot error

Young Icarus doesn't listen to his father's advice to stay low.

Once airborne, Icarus is intoxicated by the vision of the world below him, attracted by the blue sky and the light of the Sun.

Is it a son's revolt against his father's authority? The need for a generation to overthrow the authority of the previous one and start afresh? The desire to burn memories, sorrows and pleasures in order to rebuild everything?

By making fun of the past, isn't this on the contrary an opportunity for a generation to free itself from the legacy of the previous one, from its constraints, its control and, once free, regain the possibility of loving its elders. So why didn't Daedalus understand this need for love, why didn't he do something about it, why did he remain so indifferent? Why didn't he explain to Icarus the danger of the Sun? Daedalus built the winged machine, he knows that wax is fragile... Yet he doesn't explain this to Icarus, he only formulates the prohibition to fly high.

Assumption N°11

Journey to the Moon

According to Robert Graves[1]the name Icarus is mysterious, linking the young boy to the Moon "Iocarios, dedicated to the Moon goddess, Car. Car is Q're or Carius or the great god Ker, who seems to have received his title from the Moon, his mother, Artemis Caria or Carytis".

Perhaps Icarus wasn't flying towards the Sun, but wanted to reach the Moon?

He would have run out of air, ignoring its rarefaction with altitude. He would have been too cold, his muscles tetanized before falling from the sky, through the clouds.

It was only in 1608 that Johannes Keppler imagined how to travel to the Moon in his science-fiction novel Somnium, seu opus posthumum de astronomia lunari (The Dream or Lunar Astronomy). The young Icelander Duracotus, on his journey to Levania (the fabulated name of the Moon in the novel), is taken away by demons, known to his mother, Fioxhilde, a great magician. The demons take care to combat the cold and lack of air: "New difficulties then arise: the intense cold and the impossibility of breathing; we remedy the first, the demons explain , by using a power innate in us, and the second by passing sponges under his nostrils" .

Icarus didn't have a sponge when he took off from the Labyrinth.

[1] R. Graves. Les Mythes grecs, Paris, Fayard, 1967.

Assumption N°12

Collision with geese on their migration to the Moon,
What a happy omen for a sky marshal.


In the novel The Man in the Moone, written by the English bishop Francis Godwin and published in 1638, after his death, under the pseudonym Domingo Gonsales, Domingo himself discovers that "gansas" (large geese) are migrating to the Moon. With his servant Diego, he built a flying machine and flew to the Moon in a kind of goose-drawn chariot.

In 2011, artist Agnes Meyer-Brandis re-enacted this feat by raising eleven lunar geese from birth to identify her as their mother, training them to fly. She then took them on an expedition to the Moon, unless it was an imaginary place that resembled her.

Assumption N°13

Attack of the Great Eagles, or the wrath of the Gods

The gods would have had every reason to punish Daedalus. Indeed, Daedalus, this human craftsman who masters the techné and the métis, fabricates and cunning. He embodiesHomo faber, and is renowned for having made the gods visible by creating statues in their effigy, with eyes so realistic that they impress the visitor. With their eyes, these statues create illusion and set themselves in motion.

These agalmata, the statues forged by Daedalus, seemed so alive, Socrates said in amusement, that they would have to be bound to prevent them from fleeing[1]. And then Daedalus, jealous, killed his nephew, Talos, who was too brilliant. The goddess Athena, who trained Daedalus, had already opposed this murder by transforming Talos into a bird before he crashed.

In this way, the Gods could have sent great eagles to attack Icarus, who had just torn himself away from gravity and was flying too high, invading their domain. Daedalus, human, cunning, artist, strategist, blacksmith and inventor, who gave mankind the knowledge to fly like the gods, mirrors the son of the Titans, Prometheus.

Prometheus is condemned by Zeus for having stolen fire from the blacksmith god Hephaestus and given it to mankind, along with the peaceful and warlike arts of the goddess Athena.

Tied to a rock, a great eagle comes every day to devour Prometheus' liver.

In Tolkien's mythology[2]the Great Eagles of Manwë defend Middle-earth. In the third book of The Lord of the Rings , they attack the Nazgûl. This event, decisive for the victory over Sauron, could be a reminiscence of the eagles' attack on the aircraft piloted by Icarus.

[1] Plato, Meno, 97 d and Euthyphron, 11 c, d. "The works of this great sculptor, ... it does not stay in place, while, once bound, it is precious to possess. This is because they are perfectly beautiful works".

[2 ] The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien, published posthumously in 1977 by his son Christopher Tolkien

Assumption N°14

The son surpasses the father


Daedalus embodies the mastery of techné, crafting objects of art and war, he is theHomo faber who holds sway over the world. Initiated by the goddess Athena, he is omniscient, fragile and cunning. Son of the Metis, goddess of wisdom and cunning, he wavers eternally between good and evil, between giving to others, deceit and murder. Thus, he murders his young nephew Talos, whom his sister had entrusted to him as an apprentice. He is then driven out of Athens, and finds refuge in Crete, where he is welcomed by King Minos. But Daedalus deceives the King by helping the Queen, Pasiphae, to mate with Poseidon's White Bull. The result of this monstrous union is the Minotaur. Daedalus tries to make amends by creating the Labyrinth to enclose the half-man, half-bull monster he helped create.

But he deceives Minos again by giving the secret of the Labyrinth to Ariadne, the King's daughter. The son's ruse allows Theseus to enter the Labyrinth and kill the Minotaur. Minos, furious at the Minotaur's murder and Ariadne's escape with Theseus, who should have perished in the Labyrinth, punishes Daedalus and locks him in the Labyrinth with his son Icarus. With a new invention, Daedalus manages to escape by air, but in his flight he causes the death of Icarus. Welcomed in Sicily by King Cocalos, Daedalus tricks the latter into killing Minos, who is still pursuing him, by using another of his inventions to scald him.

This tragic destiny seems to be that ofhomo faber , who, having received too much knowledge from the gods, is condemned to eternally repair the misfortunes his creations engender. In this cycle of creation-destruction,homo faber conceives other inventions, but in the process causes the disappearance or misfortune of his family, as well as those who have trusted him, fascinated by his technical prowess.

Perhaps Icarus foresaw this tragic end and, pretending to play as the poet Ovid relates, deliberately modified his wings, while his father paid him no heed. By creating a machine with a different potential, not an aircraft but a spacecraft, perhaps Icarus really did set off on an expedition beyond the Aether, towards the Sun, to land forever.