Where scientists go for inspiration (hint: It’s not NASA)
By Robert Morley, Philadelphia Church of God, The Trumpet, thetrumpet.com
What kind of machine do you need to explore the surface of Mars?
It’s quite a puzzler for the scientists tasked with the job. In fact, the best minds in space exploration have found it easier to get a spacecraft to reach that distant planet than to build a robot that can successfully navigate the rugged Martian landscape—with anything near the agility of your common mountain goat.
On Earth, everything rolls on wheels. On Mars’s boulder-strewn, canyon-covered landscapes, wheels don’t work so well.
To address the problem, scientist Rodney Brooks took an alternative, yet eminently logical approach. From his earliest days of designing robots, Brooks began with the hypothesis that any successful system had to be grounded in the physical world. “I argue for simplicity,” he says. “I’m interested in building something that can’t fail to work.” So he built based on something that already worked.
In this case, he—perhaps unwitting-
ly—followed the wisdom of a biblical proverb, and went to the ant. Anyone who has ever seen an ant crawl out of impossible-looking holes or up steep walls can understand why.
The more Brooks observed the tiny six-legged creatures, the more amazed he became. He could scarcely believe humble insects were capable of forming logical descriptions inside “that puny little head with 50,000 neurons.”
By watching high-speed videos of insects running, he noticed that “they fall all the time and hit their metaphorical chin.” But because they are so lightweight and their skeletal strength is so great, they can have missteps and still recover.
While other scientists were building massive, unwieldy, fragile robots, Brooks (in conjunction with another scientist and a high school student) designed a small, lightweight, six-legged, ant-like robot called Genghis. It was good enough to get the attention of Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (jpl) and nasa.
Brooks’s ant robot, built in the mid-1980s, represented an established trend in technology—one that has been exploding in popularity in recent years: When science reaches a limit, when it hits a wall, engineers, builders and inventors look to a fascinating source for inspiration.
They turn to the creation.
It only makes sense. Whether or not you believe in the existence of a Creator, the natural world is teeming with eye-popping, mind-stretching engineering and scientific feats that, well, work. Elegantly, beautifully, without fanfare.
Nature’s Drawing Board
Perhaps you are familiar with the seeds of the burdock plant? A bane to hunters and woodsmen for thousands of years, this little-known photosynthetic organism is now the poster child for the burgeoning field of biometrics (or as it is also known, biomimicry).
Even before the fateful day in 1941 when George de Mestral went for a hike in the Swiss Alps, came back covered in sticky burrs and had an epiphany—Velcro—scientists have been copying the methods and systems found in nature and adapting them to everyday problems. In fact, learning and applying the lessons of living things is at the forefront of some of the world’s most cutting-edge technology.
During the early years of jet engines, researchers encountered a perplexing design barrier. As planes got faster and faster, the engines persistently stalled out at certain speeds. The air, instead of flowing into the engine, would for some reason flow around it. Puzzled, researchers looked to nature’s fastest animal: a diving peregrine falcon. How could the bird still breathe, they wondered, while traveling at an incredible 200 miles per hour? Looking at the falcon’s nostrils, they found that a small cone protruding from the front slowed down the air, allowing orderly airflow into the nasal cavity. Fashioning a similar cone in front of the turbine air intake slowed the air enough to maintain proper airflow into the jet engine.
Flight engineers continue to scrutinize the natural world for solutions. For example, it has long been known that the wing shapes of different birds favor different types of flight. Some wings work well for rapid acceleration; others work much better for long-distance cruising: Think sparrow versus albatross. Additionally, birds have the remarkable ability to spread their feathers during the different stages of flight to maximize efficiency. Scientists from Penn State University want to exploit these advantages by building mechanical aircraft wings that can change form. With these next-generation wings, sliding scales cover a shape-shifting understructure that allows the wing to morph in mid-flight to enable faster, more efficient flying and conserve fuel.
Other scientists and planners are trying to boost flight efficiency by mimicking bird behavior. Some birds, like Canada geese, increase the distance they can fly by more than 70 percent by flying in V-formation. Scientists have discovered that when one bird flaps its wings, it creates a small updraft that lifts the bird behind, allowing it to glide more and expend less energy. A team at Stanford University says that passenger airlines could likewise benefit from V-shaped convoy flight. Models suggest that if, for example, groups of three or more jets from West Coast airports flew in formation en route to East Coast destinations, taking turns in front as birds do, the aircraft could use 15 percent less fuel compared to flying alone. Not a bad savings for doing something as simple as imitating bird behavior. In 2009, the Defense Department announced plans to pay Boeing to investigate the merits of formation flight.
Meanwhile, scientists at the University of Leeds in Britain are studying the defense mechanism of the bombardier beetle to see if the insect might help them learn how to reignite stalled gas-turbine aircraft engines in mid-flight. The beetle is known for a highly efficient discharge apparatus that enables it to spray predators with a high-pressure stream of boiling fluid a distance of 200 to 300 times the length of its combustor. Its exit nozzle system—with its incredibly short mass ejection time and long range of spray—may serve as a prototype to help aircraft more accurately squirt plasma into gas turbine combustion chambers during the reignition process.
Engineers at Airbus are also making high-tech, nature-inspired wing modifications. In order to smooth the flow of air over the wings of the aircraft, they are using a striated foil coating inspired by the shape and texture of sharkskin. Intriguingly, scientists have discovered that the rough texture of sharkskin actually helps channel the flow of water over its surface—reducing turbulence and thus drag. Sure enough, the same principle works with airflow. The result of their nature-inspired modifications? Planes creating 6 percent less friction and enjoying increased fuel efficiency.
The sharkskin discovery applied even more directly at the last summer Olympics in Beijing. Swimmer Michael Phelps won a record-breaking eight gold medals there. Training and aptitude were no doubt the biggest reasons for his success, but his swimsuit, fashioned with synthetic sharkskin fabric, definitely provided an edge. In fact, 89 percent of all medal winners at that competition wore sharkskin-model suits.
Similar sharkskin-type coatings are being applied to the hulls of ships as well because their bumpy, rivet-like contours inhibit the growth of barnacles, algae and other organisms that normally like to adhere themselves to boat bottoms.
Higher, Faster, Further—Cooler?
Inventors have designed fabrics that could be used to make clothing that adjusts to help keep you warmer or cooler depending on your body temperature. How? By studying the way pinecones open and close depending on humidity. One new smart textile is constructed with a layer of thin spikes of water-absorbent material that opens up when the wearer sweats. When the layer dries out, the spikes automatically close again. A second layer underneath would protect the wearer from the rain. These fabrics promise to reduce or eliminate the need to wear multiple layers of clothing.
Keeping cool is also a challenge for building engineers, especially when you want to avoid expensive air conditioning bills. To solve this problem, some designers have turned to the humble termite. As it turns out, termites are masters at managing the temperatures inside their termite towers. They do this by constantly opening and closing vents throughout the mound to bring in cooler air from lower levels and release hot air through chimneys. The new high-rise Eastgate Center building in Harare was inspired by these amazing insect mounds. It collects cool air at night and lets it settle to basement levels. Then this air is used to cool the structure throughout the day. The result is a modern building that uses only 10 percent of the energy required by a typical multistory shopping mall.
When engineering solutions are not enough to keep heating and cooling costs down, super-efficient wind turbines can help. For this, the creation is offering solutions too.
Ever wonder why humpback whales have odd bumpy protrusions on the front of their flippers? Despite traditional fluid dynamics that say this isn’t possible, it is because the scallops actually reduce drag and increase lift. This new science—which is actually as old as humpback whales—is revolutionizing wind turbine technology. New airfoils designed with humpback flipper-like bumps on the leading edge reduce stall angles and purportedly increase efficiency enough (almost a third) to make the wind power comparable, on a cost basis, to other, more traditional forms of power generation.
Changing to Survive
The wild Martian landscape is far from being the only challenge in space exploration. High-energy radiation bombards sensitive electronic equipment and extreme temperatures cause drastic mechanical wear and high rates of system failure. To get around these problems, scientists commonly include shielding. They hardwire spare parts, build in redundancy, and take other measures. But the drawbacks are formidable. Spare parts and insulation are heavy and costly. Plus, you can’t carry spare parts for everything, or—in the case of space travel—it might not fly.
Some scientists, however, are taking a radically different approach—one also grounded in the real world of the creation.
What if you could build a circuit board, a computer program or a robot that could adapt depending on conditions? Even better, since there is no post office to deliver spare parts on Jupiter, what if you could build a system that could repair itself? That is what scientists like Adrian Stoica at jpl are working on.
Consider humans. In some ways, we’re quite fragile. We are optimized to live in 70 degree climate, but we have learned to adapt to live in climates between minus-40 degrees in arctic tundra to 104 degrees or higher in warmer climates. We adapt to our environment by wearing clothes, eating high-energy food, drinking lots of fluids, and avoiding intense sunlight. Even a child learns to put on a pair of socks when his feet are cold. This makes us much more resilient.
Scientists like Stoica are developing circuits and even computer programs that adapt when they notice a change in the environment or when they fail at a task.
Working for jpl and nasa, Stoica’s job was to build electronics that could perform functions in extreme environments such as volcanoes or nuclear reactors, or even outer space. As opposed to the standard approach of shielding electronics from the environment, he thought of a second possibility: When the environment changes, why not just replace the broken parts by having the electronics reconfigure themselves?
Thus Stoica designed and built flexible circuits that actually self-adapt to find optimal functionality under radiation, temperature or other environmental changes.
“The human body offers a good analogy,” say Dennis Shasha and Cathy Lazere in their book Natural Computing. “Cuts normally … heal naturally in a few days, broken arms in a few weeks. But an amputated limb requires a prosthetic. If a spacecraft could be designed so that minor failures would be repaired locally and severe failures would be repaired by replacement with a spare part, then the spacecraft [or robot] might survive for [much longer].”
A spaceship that can fix itself might sound fanciful, but consider that the transportation industry is already developing products based on the same concept for use much closer to home. Self-repairing plastics for use in things like aircraft fuselages and automobiles are being tested with the hope that they can make vehicles lighter, more fuel-efficient and safer. When the hollow plastic fibers are stressed or broken, the microscopic tubes release an epoxy resin, creating a “scab” nearly as strong as the original material.
Other scientists are taking the concept of biological adaptation even further: working to produce machines that can not only mimic and adapt to change, but also make decisions and solve complex problems on their own.
“[T]he future,” say Shasha and Lazere, “is a synthesis with nature.” In other words, get ready for some mind-boggling advances.
The Correct Scientific Method
The discoveries—that is, rediscoveries—are coming faster and faster. Considering the vastness of the creation, the potential is virtually limitless.
Consider. Deep-sea sponges have inspired commercial optical fibers. Giant water-capturing fog nets in Chile and Peru were inspired by a Stenocara beetle. Bat-like sonar-emitting canes help blind people locate obstructions. Superhydrophobic paint that won’t collect dirt is coming to storerooms near you—and was inspired by the lotus plant (will you ever have to wash your car again?). Sea creatures related to sea urchins, called brittle stars, have led to improved optical lens designs. The gecko has taught us how to make tape without glue.
Who knows what discoveries the yeti crab or star-nosed mole might hold? How long before we are commercializing rope based upon super-strong spider silk? Or making glass out of dissolved silicon in seawater, like microscopic phytoplankton? What other technologies will the creatures living in deep-sea underwater volcanic vents stimulate?
As scientists know, success in an endeavor requires building on a sound foundation. Often, when scientists and builders get into trouble it is because they build on a faulty foundation. If you begin with an incorrect premise, you’ll end with an incorrect answer.
Creation-based science is proving to have a terrific premise. Why is that? If we are honest, we cannot attribute the supremely developed engineering behind the natural world to random chance. It reveals a mind of stunning intelligence and creativity.
As Herbert W. Armstrong once wrote, “I have said that the tools of modern science are observation, experimentation and reason. Are those tools wrong? Not at all! The error comes from rejection of revelation. For revelation is the true starting premise.”
If you want truth, if you want real answers, God must be your foundation. The Bible reveals that when God saw everything He had created, “it was very good.” God designed the material world with all its physical, chemical and biological laws to work well. The more you look at creation, the more you come to understand that even our most advanced man-made technologies look primitive by comparison.
Although scientists today don’t realize it, as they look to nature for solutions to problems, they come very close to the correct scientific method. Looking to the lessons of living things—which are designed by God, the Supergenius of cutting-edge technology—is about as close as this world comes to asking God for answers.
When God’s knowledge is the foundation of a project, it is inspiring to see what can be accomplished!
Shasha and Lazere say that the future “is a synthesis with nature.” In truth, the bright future scientists are working toward will come as a result of a “synthesis” not with nature—but with the Creator of “nature”! The Bible prophesies of a time coming soon when all human endeavor will be based on the right premise, and grounded in a robust relationship with God. Under direct divine tutelage, the scientific barriers holding us back today will come tumbling down! Invention and technology will enter its true golden age!