Learning From Designs in Nature

“Many of our best inventions are copied from, or already in use by, other living things.”—Phil Gates, Wild Technology.

AS MENTIONED in the preceding article, the aim of the science of biomimetics is to produce more complex materials and machines by imitating nature. Nature manufactures its products without causing pollution, and they tend to be resilient and light, yet incredibly strong.

For example, ounce for ounce, bone is stronger than steel. What is its secret? Part of the answer lies in its well-engineered shape, but the key reasons lie deeper—at the molecular level. “The success of living organisms lies in the design and assembly of their smallest components,” explains Gates. As a result of peering into these smallest components, scientists have isolated the substances that give natural products from bone to silk their envied strength and light weight. These substances, they have discovered, are various forms of natural composites.

The Miracle of Composites

Composites are solid materials that result when two or more substances are combined to form a new substance containing properties that are superior to those of the original ingredients. This can be illustrated by the synthetic composite fiberglass, which is commonly used in boat hulls, fishing rods, bows, arrows, and other sporting goods.* Fiberglass is made by setting fine fibers of glass in a liquid or jellylike matrix of plastic (called a polymer). When the polymer hardens, or sets, the end result is a composite that is lightweight, strong, and flexible. If the kinds of fibers and the matrix are varied, an enormously broad range of products can be made. Of course, man-made composites are still crude compared with those found naturally in humans, animals, and plants.

In humans and animals, instead of fibers of glass or carbon, a fibrous protein called collagen forms the basis of the composites that give strength to skin, intestines, cartilage, tendons, bones, and teeth (except for the enamel).* One reference work describes collagen-based composites as being “among the most advanced structural composite materials known.”

For example, consider tendons, which tie muscle to bone. Tendons are remarkable, not just because of the toughness of their collagen-based fibers but also because of the brilliant way these fibers are woven together. In her book Biomimicry, Janine Benyus writes that the unraveled tendon “is almost unbelievable in its multileveled precision. The tendon in your forearm is a twisted bundle of cables, like the cables used in a suspension bridge. Each individual cable is itself a twisted bundle of thinner cables. Each of these thinner cables is itself a twisted bundle of molecules, which are, of course, twisted, helical bundles of atoms. Again and again a mathematical beauty unfolds.” It is, she says, “engineering brilliance.” Is it any surprise that scientists speak of being inspired by nature’s designs?—Compare Job 40:15, 17.

As mentioned, man-made composites pale when compared with those of nature. Still, synthetics are remarkable products. In fact, they are listed among the ten most outstanding engineering achievements of the past 25 years. For example, composites based on graphite or carbon fibers have led to new generations of aircraft and spacecraft parts, sporting goods, Formula One race cars, yachts, and lightweight artificial limbs—to mention just a few items in a rapidly growing inventory.

Multifunctional, Miraculous Blubber

Whales and dolphins don’t know it, but their bodies are wrapped in a miracle tissue—blubber, a form of fat. “Whale blubber is perhaps the most multifunctional material we know,” says the book Biomimetics: Design and Processing of Materials. Explaining why, it adds that blubber is a marvelous flotation device and so helps whales surface for air. It provides these warm-blooded mammals with excellent insulation against the cold of the ocean. And it is also the best possible food reserve during nonfeeding migrations over thousands of miles. Indeed, ounce for ounce, fat yields between two and three times as much energy as protein and sugar.

“Blubber is also a very bouncy rubberlike material,” according to the above-mentioned book. “Our best estimate now is that acceleration caused by the elastic recoil of blubber that is compressed and stretched with each tail stroke may save up to 20% of the cost of locomotion during extended periods of continuous swimming.”

Blubber has been harvested for centuries, yet only recently has it come to light that about half the volume of blubber consists of a complex mesh of collagen fibers wrapped around each animal. Although scientists are still trying to fathom the workings of this fat-composite mix, they believe that they have discovered yet another miracle product that would have many useful applications if produced synthetically.

An Eight-Legged Engineering Genius

In recent years scientists have also been looking very closely at the spider. They are keen to understand how it manufactures spider silk, which is also a composite. True, a broad range of insects produce silk, yet spider silk is special. One of the strongest materials on earth, it “is the stuff that dreams are made of,” said one science writer. Spider silk is so outstanding that a list of its amazing properties would seem unbelievable.

Why do scientists use superlatives when describing spider silk? Besides being five times stronger than steel, it is also highly elastic—a rare combination in materials. Spider silk stretches 30 percent farther than the most elastic nylon. Yet, it does not bounce like a trampoline and so throw the spider’s meal into the air. “On the human scale,” says Science News, “a web resembling a fishing net could catch a passenger plane.”

If we could copy the spider’s chemical wizardry—two species even produce seven varieties of silk—imagine how it could be put to use! In vastly improved seat belts as well as in sutures, artificial ligaments, lightweight lines and cables, and bulletproof fabrics, to name just a few possibilities. Scientists are also trying to understand how the spider makes silk so efficiently—and without the use of toxic chemicals.

Nature’s Gearboxes and Jet Engines

Gearboxes and jet engines keep today’s world on the move. But did you know that nature also beat us to these designs? Take the gearbox, for example. Gearboxes allow you to change gears in your vehicle so as to get the most efficient use out of the motor. Nature’s gearbox does the same, but it does not link engine to wheels. Rather, it links wings to wings! And where can it be found? In the common fly. The fly has a three-speed gearshift connected to its wings, allowing it to change gears while in the air!

The squid, the octopus, and the nautilus all have a form of jet propulsion that drives them through the water. Scientists view these jets with envy. Why? Because they are composed of soft parts that cannot break, that can withstand great depths, and that run silently and efficiently. In fact, a squid can jet along at up to 20 miles [32 km] an hour when fleeing predators, “sometimes even leaping out of the water and onto the decks of ships,” says the book Wild Technology.

Yes, taking just a few moments to reflect on the natural world can fill us with awe and appreciation. Nature truly is a living puzzle that prompts one question after another: What chemical marvels ignite the brilliant, cold light in fireflies and certain algae? How do various arctic fish and frogs, after being frozen solid for the winter, become active again when they thaw out? How do whales and seals stay under the water for long periods without a breathing apparatus? And how do they repeatedly dive to great depths without getting decompression sickness, commonly called the bends? How do chameleons and cuttlefish change color to blend with their surroundings? How do hummingbirds cross the Gulf of Mexico on less than one tenth of an ounce [3 gm] of fuel? It seems that the list of questions could go on endlessly.

Truly, humans can only look on and wonder. Scientists develop an awe “bordering on reverence” when they study nature, says the book Biomimicry.

Behind the Design—A Designer!

Associate professor of biochemistry Michael Behe stated that one result of recent discoveries within the living cell “is a loud, clear, piercing cry of ‘design!’” He added that this result of efforts to study the cell “is so unambiguous and so significant that it must be ranked as one of the greatest achievements in the history of science.”

Understandably, evidence of a Designer creates problems for those who adhere to the theory of evolution, for evolution cannot account for the sophisticated design within living things, especially at the cellular and molecular levels. “There are compelling reasons,” says Behe, “to think that a Darwinian explanation for the mechanisms of life will forever prove elusive.”

In Darwin’s time the living cell—the foundation of life—was thought to be simple, and the theory of evolution was conceived in that era of relative ignorance. But now science has gone past that. Molecular biology and biomimetics have proved beyond all doubt that the cell is an extraordinarily complex system packed with exquisite, perfect designs that make the inner workings of our most sophisticated gadgets and machines look like child’s play by comparison.

Brilliant design leads us to the logical conclusion, says Behe, “that life was designed by an intelligent agent.” Is it not reasonable, therefore, that this Agent also has a purpose, one that includes humans? If so, what is that purpose? And can we learn more about our Designer himself? The following article will examine those important questions.

[Footnotes]

Strictly speaking, fiberglass refers to the glass fibers in the composite. However, in common usage the term refers to the composite itself, which is made of plastic and fiberglass.

Vegetable composites are based on cellulose rather than collagen. Cellulose gives wood many of its coveted qualities as a building material. Cellulose has been described as a “tensile material without peer.”

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An Extinct Fly Helps to Improve Solar Panels

  While visiting a museum, a scientist saw pictures of an extinct fly preserved in amber, says a report in New Scientist magazine. He noticed a series of gratings on the insect’s eyes and suspected that these might have helped the fly’s eyes to capture more light, especially at very oblique angles. He and other researchers began conducting experiments and confirmed their hunch.

  Scientists soon made plans to try to etch the same pattern of gratings onto the glass of solar panels. This, they hope, will increase the energy generated by solar panels. It might also eliminate the need for the costly tracking systems presently required to keep solar panels pointed at the sun. Better solar panels may mean less fossil fuel use and, thus, less pollution—a worthy goal. Clearly, discoveries like this one help us to appreciate that nature is a veritable mother lode of brilliant designs just waiting to be found, understood and, where possible, copied in useful ways.

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Giving Credit Where It Is Due

  In 1957, Swiss engineer George de Mestral noticed that the small, tenacious burs clinging to his clothes were covered with tiny hooks. He studied these burs and their hooks, and soon his creative mind caught fire. He spent the next eight years developing a synthetic equivalent of the bur. His invention took the world by storm and is now a household name—Velcro.

  Imagine how de Mestral would have felt had the world been told that no one designed Velcro, that it just happened as the result of a string of thousands of accidents in a workshop. Clearly, fairness and justice demand that credit be given where it is due. Human inventors obtain patents to ensure that it is. Yes, it seems that humans deserve credit, financial rewards, and even praise for their creations, which are often inferior imitations of things in the natural world. Should not our wise Creator receive acknowledgment for his perfect originals?

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Ounce for ounce, bone is stronger than steel

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Anatomie du gladiateur combattant...., Paris, 1812, Jean-Galbert Salvage

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Whale blubber provides flotation, heat insulation, and food reserves

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© Dave B. Fleetham/Visuals Unlimited

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Crocodile and alligator hides can deflect spears, arrows, and even bullets

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Spider silk is five times stronger than steel, yet highly elastic

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A woodpecker’s brain is protected by very dense bone that acts as a shock absorber

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Chameleons change color to blend with their surroundings

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The nautilus has special chambers that enable it to regulate its buoyancy

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The ruby-throated hummingbird makes a 600-mile [1,000 km] journey on less than one tenth of an ounce [3 g] of fuel

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The squid uses a form of jet propulsion

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Chemical marvels ignite the brilliant, cold light in fireflies

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© Jeff J. Daly/Visuals Unlimited