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Mimicking Nature

Updated on November 30, 2012

 Have you ever wondered how a gecko stays upside down on the ceiling or why a fly seems to know well in advance when you are trying to swat it? Or why locusts that fly in swarms of millions don’t crash into each other? Or how bats are able to fly around in total darkness, without colliding? And to take it a step further, wondered how these phenomena occurring in nature, can be understood and adapted for mankind’s benefit?

There is a field of study that does precisely this. It is called Biomimicry, Bionics, Biomimetics and a host of other names. The word Biomimicry comes from Bios meaning life and Mimesis meaning to imitate. It involves essentially the understanding of 3.8 billion years of evolution on earth and putting that to use in addressing challenges that face human beings. In a sense, instead of trying to harness nature (like generating electricity from rivers or windmills), the idea is to learn from nature and use that learning to advantage.

To a nature-lover, it is heartening to know that nature has inspired many ideas. It is difficult to say which have impacted humankind the most, but here are some that I found interesting.

 

                           Flight of a bird   courtesy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_scientist_and_inventor
                           Flight of a bird courtesy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_scientist_and_inventor

Leonardo da Vinci, Birds and Aviation

Birds have been instrumental in the development of wings that enabled man take to the skies. The story goes that as a grown man, Leonardo da Vinci remembered a childhood incident in which a kite descended to where Leonardo lay and its tail feathers touched his face. This possibly played a role in the contribution he made later in life in the field of aviation. He studied the flight of birds and wrote his Treatise on the Flight of Birds circa 1506.

It is believed that da Vinci’s drawings of the Ornithopter led to the design of the helicopter. As did the drawings of the Flying Machines influence aviation.

Designs for a Flying Machine
Designs for a Flying Machine
The Ornithopter   Courtesy Image Courtesy http://inventors.about.com/od/dstartinventors/ig/Inventions-of-Leonardo-DaVinci/
The Ornithopter Courtesy Image Courtesy http://inventors.about.com/od/dstartinventors/ig/Inventions-of-Leonardo-DaVinci/

 The Wright brothers too observed the wings of birds to develop aeroplane wings. The science of flight has benefitted greatly from nature and continues to do so to this day. Wings that change according to speed and flying time (swing wing)  have been designed from observations of the shapes of different bird species         

Image courtesy inventors.about.com – Velcro
Image courtesy inventors.about.com – Velcro

A dog and Velcro

Velcro (a combination of the words velour – a fabric resembling velvet and crochet – a term for pulling loops through loops) came about through the observations of a Swiss engineer named George de Mestral. He was out hunting with his dog in the Alps in the summer of 1948 and noticed how burrs (seeds) of Burdock stuck to his trousers and his dog’s fur. Further microscopic examination revealed the presence of hundreds of “hooks’ that attached themselves to loops. De Mestral used this insight to design a stiff hook and soft loops which now find application in space suits, scuba diving and skiing.  

 The humble burr therefore actually helped put man on the moon.
And can you guess what de Mestral’s advice to Velcro executives was? He said “If any of your employees ask for a two-week holiday to go hunting, say yes”.

Courtesy   http://sarahmeyerwalsh.files.wordpress.com/2007/12/pinecone.jpg
Courtesy http://sarahmeyerwalsh.files.wordpress.com/2007/12/pinecone.jpg

A Pinecone and Smart Clothing

 Julian Vincent of Bath University in the UK observed the pinecone to develop “smart” clothing. Vincent noticed that a pinecone opens and closes according to the humidity, to disperse its seeds.  Based on this principle, he developed a woven textile that mimicked the cone by opening when a  person is warm and closing when cold. This has major implications for mountaineers, where the concept of layered clothing will undergo a total transformation thanks to the pinecone.

 The process of learning from nature is never-ending. The more we observe, the more we learn. A brief glance now into the future. What developments await us and our children, courtesy Mother Nature?

A Carmaker and the African locust

 What on earth could Volvo have in common with the locust? Volvo, as anyone with a nodding acquaintance of the automobile market would know, is the world’s “safe” car manufacturer – a market position it has held for many years. To reinforce that position, Volvo is now in the process of developing an injury-proof car by 2020.

But  where is the connection with the locust? When you start to think of it, how is it that locusts in a swarm of millions do not collide with each other? They must truly be the natural world’s  champion at collision avoidance. So it makes eminent sense for the world’s safe car producer to study the locust. QED.

http://image.motortrend.com/f/auto-news/volvo-wants-to-make-its-cars-injury-proof-by-2020/9805935+w562+cr1+re0+ar1/volvo-crash-test.jpg
http://image.motortrend.com/f/auto-news/volvo-wants-to-make-its-cars-injury-proof-by-2020/9805935+w562+cr1+re0+ar1/volvo-crash-test.jpg
Courtesy  http://www.newprophecy.net/A_child_swings_a_broom_stick_at_a_swarm_of_locusts_in_Mexico.jpg
Courtesy http://www.newprophecy.net/A_child_swings_a_broom_stick_at_a_swarm_of_locusts_in_Mexico.jpg

 Researchers at Newcastle University have found that the secret lies in the locust’s eye. In less than a millisecond, those eyes can spot a potential crash situation and send signals to the wings and legs to take evasive action. The mechanism is yet to be understood completely. When this happens, Volvo plans to put this knowledge onto a computer chip, which will form part of the car’s safety system to detect and evade any object that suddenly appears in the car’s path. QED, QED

Managing traffic the way ants do

The world is so enamoured with the automobile that it seems inevitable that the next point is also related to cars. Most urban residents will agree that traffic is a bane of modern day life. Wherever we live, traffic jams are as common as, let’s say, ants in an anthill.

The busy ant is a very successful traffic manager. Researchers therefore studied this insect more closely. Experiments have been conducted in which two routes of differing widths were set up for ants to reach a bowl of sugar syrup. They found that the narrower route soon became blocked between returning ants and those starting out. Ants returning with “food” on this route would inevitably bang into an exiting ant. When this happened, the ant with food would get right of way and push the starting ant onto the other path. The thought therefore is, can systems be established whereby cars going in one direction are made to exchange information on traffic conditions with cars travelling in the opposite direction? Possibly yes, but we are still some distance away.

Water, Water Nowhere (with apologies to The Ancient Mariner)

 One has ofcourse heard of the horny Devil, but the Thorny Devil? Well, this is a  creature living in the arid, desert areas of Central Australia. The Thorny Devil has an extraordinary structure which is of interest to scientists trying to find solutions to the impending water crisis facing mankind. It is often said that if the 20th Century was about oil, the 21st will be about water. 

Courtesy  http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/enlarge/thorny-devil_pod_image.html
Courtesy http://photography.nationalgeographic.com/photography/enlarge/thorny-devil_pod_image.html

The Thorny Devil has the ability to collect moisture from standing water, from rain, from the soil and also from nighttime dew. It has a number of channels running between the scales on its skin which enable it to collect water. This water is drawn into its mouth through capillary action. Designers are working on how this knowledge can be used to improve the availability of water.


A small, undistinguished beetle from the Namibian desert, which receives less than half an inch of water annually, has led researchers from the MIT to develop a material that combines a water-repelling surface with water-attracting bumps to trap water and control water flow.

The Namib beetle has evolved over the millennia to maximize advantage from the early morning fog which drifts over the desert. The moisture in the fog forms water droplets of 15 to 20 microns (about one-fifth the diameter of a human hair) which collect on top of bumps on the beetle’s back as this is the coolest part around. The bumps are surrounded by water-repelling channels The water droplets keep increasing in size and finally become large enough to roll into the beetle’s mouth.

Namibian Beetle

Courtesy www.science-art.com
Courtesy www.science-art.com

This new material is finding application in water-harvesting and cooling devices. Possibilities exist for developing self-decontaminating surfaces to collect harmful substances.

So the message is go out, go commune with nature, walk in the forests, along riverbanks, up in the mountains. Observe silently nature’s wonders. Think, think about what you have seen. You may just become the next Leonardo da Vinci.

Comments

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    • sabu singh profile imageAUTHOR

      sabu singh 

      6 years ago

      Thank you for visiting and your comment on the Thorny Devil, Jason. I had no idea about the blood bit - Dracula would have been pleased. Cheers.

    • profile image

      jason 

      6 years ago

      Amazing work ..... thorny devil what a creature , it throws out blood from it's eyes to scare away predators.

      looking forward for more.

    • sabu singh profile imageAUTHOR

      sabu singh 

      8 years ago

      Absolutely Yard of nature. Thanks for reading.

    • Yard of nature profile image

      Yard of nature 

      8 years ago from Michigan

      Great concluding message. If only more people would take the time to look around them.

    • sabu singh profile imageAUTHOR

      sabu singh 

      9 years ago

      Thank you for your kind words RooBee. Glad you enjoyed reading it. Yes you are right we have and still continue to try to dominate nature. Far more sensible to learn from her

    • RooBee profile image

      Arby Bourne 

      9 years ago from USA

      I'm fascinated with biomimicry - my uncle who is an architect working with sustainable building told me about it. Amazing how we as a species have tried so hard to have dominion over (basically conquer) nature. Yet, we always come back to the simple perfection of nature as a model for our own undertakings.

      I'm so glad I got to read this! Fantastic job.

    • sabu singh profile imageAUTHOR

      sabu singh 

      9 years ago

      Thanks for your comments Jaspal. Glad you liked this hub

    • Jaspal profile image

      Jaspal 

      9 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Nice hub Sabu ...

      Biomimicry might be a new field - it's a new word for me definitely - but as you pointed out, it is something humankind has always been doing. It certainly helps keep our scince fiction writers, scientists and engineers busy and out of mischief! :p

    • sabu singh profile imageAUTHOR

      sabu singh 

      9 years ago

      Interesting obesrvation Sally - I never looked at it quite that way. Shall read your hub for sure.

      Perhaps if the number of cars on the road continue to grow, we may need to evolve like the locust has done

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 

      9 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      LOL Sabu! I am anti-Volvo, always have been. I wouldn't own one if it was gifted to me. This company is determined to take responsibility for driving out of the hands of the driver, putting everyone else on the road at risk. Not to plug a Hub of mine, but you can see my sardonic tongue in cheek about this in The New City Safety Car. However, thank you for your very caring comment. :)

      My goal, by 2020, is to refine my eye as well as the locust has refined its own.

    • sabu singh profile imageAUTHOR

      sabu singh 

      9 years ago

      Thank you for your kind words, Sally's Trove.

      I am happy to know of the new Volvo model. I hope you are driving this vehicle and staying safe and out of the way of the other pesky locusts on the road

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 

      9 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      What a joy to read. Thank you so much for putting together this informative and inspiring Hub. Anyone can observe these wonders of nature, anyone who has the desire and the patience, that is. And with observation can come the light bulb.

      I was quite intrigued with the Volvo story. As you probably know, they've already implemented at least part of their understanding of the locust's ability to avoid collision in their new XC60 City Safety model. By the time 2020 arrives, I fear all of us who play in traffic will be more like swarming locusts than anything else.

      Thumbs up!

    • sabu singh profile imageAUTHOR

      sabu singh 

      9 years ago

      What is this life if full of care etc etc

      Thanks

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 

      9 years ago from India

      If we only stand and stare....but so often we pass by the wonders of Nature - thanks for a very informative hub!

    • sabu singh profile imageAUTHOR

      sabu singh 

      9 years ago

      Thanks FP

      Nice of you to read and comment

    • profile image

      Feline Prophet 

      9 years ago

      What an informative hub! There's obviously some meaning and logic to all of Nature...we just have to learn to see it.

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