Scientists increasingly draw inspiration from nature for technological advances, both for what is possible and how to accomplish it.
The following will briefly describe three new examples. The fact that Earth’s life provides insights and innovations for scientists and engineers to build more advanced devices fits more comfortably within a Christian worldview rather than a naturalistic, atheistic one.
As the wise Yoda once said, “Always two there are, a master and an apprentice.” The master teaches and models; the apprentice learns and emulates. The more the apprentice studies the master’s work, in order to learn the techniques and apply them in other situations, the quicker the skills of the apprentice grow. Regarding technological advance, biological systems provide stunning designs for the apprentice to emulate. Consider these examples.
Mantis Shrimp Hammers
The mantis shrimp (neither mantis nor shrimp) uses its club-like appendages for a variety of purposes, especially for gathering food. Their appendages seem relatively flimsy, nonetheless, they can break crab shells and even shatter aquarium glass, and with impressive speed. The durability of these thin “clubs”1 served as inspiration for a team of scientists. These researchers determined that the unique composite structure and weave of these remarkable mantis shrimp clubs creates a composite much stronger than many human-engineered ceramics. Now scientists have identified how mantis shrimp technology could be used to engineer better hip and joint implants—in addition to other types of applications. Armor plating modeled after the mantis shrimp could possibly lead to more impact-resistant, lighter-weight vehicles. In fact, anything subject to continuous wear and tear could benefit from this crustacean-inspired type of technology.
Sunflower Pointing Systems
A field of sunflowers slowly changes throughout the day as each flower rotates to follow the Sun across the sky. This characteristic, called heliotropism, allows the sunflower to absorb far more sunlight than if the flower remained in one position. Engineers working on solar cells recognize the energy advantage gained from a heliotropic cell and often implement a mechanical system to mimic this behavior. However, the mechanical systems usually require extra materials and a separate control system so the cell knows where to point. University of Wisconsin-Madison engineers sought to design a heliotropic system to imitate sunflowers. They synthesized a material that absorbs a range of light wavelengths and contracts in the presence of heat.2 They then assembled a device out of strands of this material. As more sunlight hits the exposed sides of the strands, they heat up and contract, thus pulling the top of the device more in line with the Sun. Since this device requires no external parts to align with the Sun, it is able to harvest energy far more efficiently than previous designs.
Many small creatures walk easily on surfaces of all angles—even upside down. Usually, these creatures utilize the surface tension of water to adhere to the surfaces. Additionally, a liquid covering on the legs produces strong capillary forces with dry surfaces, allowing the bug’s feet to stick. However, this mechanism won’t work on a surface underwater or even covered in rain. So how is it possible for beetles and other bugs to walk on such surfaces? Detailed studies of the leaf beetle demonstrate how this is possible. The leaf beetle has hair-like structures on its legs (called setae) and when the legs are submerged underwater, the setae bring air-bubbles along. These bubbles effectively clear away the water from the surface so the beetles can employ the standard capillary forces for adhesion.3 The scientists then used the same principle to develop “an artificial silicone polymer structure with underwater adhesive properties” that doesn’t use any glue.
The designs found in nature often help humanity develop more advanced devices than what we come up with on our own. This raises a provocative question. Does it make more sense that our apprenticeship learns from a mindless, purposeless master or that the designs we mimic from nature arise from the mind of a benevolent Creator?
- James C. Weaver et al., “The Stomatopod Dactyl Club: A Formidable Damage-Tolerant Biological Hammer,” Science 336 (June 8, 2012): 1275–80.
- Chensha Li et al., “Direct Sun-Driven Artificial Heliotropism for Solar Energy Harvesting Based on a Photo-Thermomechanical Liquid-Crystal Elastomer Nanocomposite,” Advanced Functional Materials, published electronically August 1, 2012, doi:10.1002/adfm.201202038.
- Naoe Hosoda and Stanislav N. Gorb, “Underwater Locomotion in a Beetle: Combination of Surface De-wetting and Capillary Forces,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B, published electronically August 8, 2012, doi:10.1098/rspb.2012/1297.