Sunday, 18 December 2016

Biomimicry: When Nature Is The Smartest Inventor

By mimicking the way biological organisms have already conducted themselves in a long history of natural selection, human beings have been able to innovate and solve many of the technological and sustainability problems confronting our species.

Here are some examples: modelling echolocation in bats has brought about technology such as car reversing alarms and devices for the blind; the spider’s web was influential in designing things like the bulletproof vest; some forms of display technology are based on the reflective properties of certain kinds of butterfly after it was discovered that butterfly wings contain microstructures that create the colouring effect; the Bombardier beetle's powerful repellent spray inspired low-carbon sprays in eco-friendly canisters; some anti-bacterial substances were inspired by marine algae; and the friction-free surfaces on various electrical goods were inspired by studying types of lizard skin.

Some more examples: the pacemaker was modelled on the wiring system of the humpback whale’s heart; velcro was inspired by looking at the tiny hooks at the end of each spine on burrs under a microscope; whale fins, tails and flippers make good engineering templates for wind turbines; studying van der Waals forces on the miniature hairs on the feet of geckos has given us ideas for strong types of adhesive; and studying how epoxy resin restores fibres in skin has helped bring about the idea of self-healing plastics that mirror the human ability to heal cuts. Those were just a few examples, and perhaps the tip of the iceberg for what is to come in the future.

Ideas can come after lengthy study or in quick-flash moments. When designing aircraft wings, engineers closely observed birds and fish, and they designed those wings to morph their shape depending on the speed and duration of flight. Apparently, the Wright brothers were inspired to build aircraft after briefly observing pigeons. Engineers in Zimbabwe studied tower-building termites and how they construct their mounds to sustain a constant temperature by convection currents of air. They do this by constantly opening and closing vents throughout the mound, which draws in colder air near the bottom and releases hot air from the top. The hugely energy efficient Eastgate Centre building in Harare (pictured below) is based on this termite design.

All these examples serve as a great template for understanding the reality behind our ability to mimic nature, as we find that our ways of thinking mirror how nature behaves. You’ll find that laws in logic represent the laws in physical reality, and patterns in economics mirror patterns in the natural world – and this realisation provides us with an ideal foundation for understanding the world. Not only do such endeavours undergo evolutionary change in the artificial selection process in industry – quite often we stumbled upon new ideas without very much pre-planning or foresight.

Think of inventing an aircraft or, even simpler, a car – it’s not just a one-step fait accompli, it's a lengthy bit-by-bit process of trial and error. That's why cars of today have Air Con, CD players, more BHP, better wheels and tyres, and so on - features that old cars do not have. Also, many of the proprietary parts of the car (wheels, glass, engine parts, electrical components, leather interior, the oil sump (to name but a few) were all invented or discovered without the car being conceived or envisaged as a goal (and that's to say nothing of the agriculture, cities and writing which set the social base for industrialisation in the first place). 

All these bit-by-bit improvements come down to experience, theory and concept, because experience bootstraps theories and concepts, which pre-date the inventions that reify those concepts. This shows the precedent for gradual step-by-step increase in complexity to the extent that it allows limited human intelligence to make advances and achieve results beyond that which is available to a single act of inventive foresight and goal formulation.