The Greatest Technologist of All

Candice eetimesThose that have heard me speak on designing color displays will recognize a consistent refrain of carefully matching the capabilities of the display to that of the Human Vision System (HVS).  At times, to accomplish this, I take advantage of the design inspiration concept of biomimicry, the recognition that natural selection has already found a favorable solution through evolving forms toward a local optimum, given the constraints of the cost of time, energy, and materials that nature must use.  By taken a lesson from nature, we often can find that a good solution already exists.

But we must differentiate between taking inspiration from nature and actually using an evolved solution to essentially the same problem that we as designers, engineers, and inventors face.  Nature can provide abundant beauty in both form and color.  Many an artist as reflected that beauty in their work.  But this is not “biomimicry”… and just because an engineering solution bears a resemblance to something in nature, may even have been inspired by such, does not mean that it is being applied to the same problem.

Consider an example often touted in the press as being engineering biomicry, the curved impeller / propeller designed by Jay Harmon and manufactured by Pax Scientific.  Their impeller is often described as having been inspired by the calla lily or the spiral nautilus shell:

But, while it may have been inspired by the lovely curves of the flower, this impeller owes its design more to Archimedes’ screw than any evolutionary process to solve the problem of fluid mixing.

Similarly we must differentiate between merely using a natural biomaterial, though it may be used for exactly the same purpose for which it was selected for by nature.  For example, antibiotics are most often discovered in nature, since many organisms must fend off bacteria.  But that shouldn’t be called biomimicry.

So what would be an example of biomimicry?  For one of the most obvious example, one need look no further than up into the sky at the nearly constant traffic of airplanes.  The early pioneers of aviation, starting with Leonardo DaVinci, Otto Lilienthal, John Montgomery, onto the Wright Brothers, all took careful note how nature solved the problem of flight and emulated her.

Sometimes engineers and nature come up with the same solution.  Albert Einstein was a great inventor as well as a famous physicist.  One of his most important inventions was the reverse flow heat exchanger, perhaps the most efficient heat exchanger yet developed, or evolved.  It turns out that many marine mammals, notably the cetacea (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) use exactly this same mechanism to supply oxygen to their skin will retaining body heat.  I don’t know if Einstein knew that or not, but I doubt it.  So, should we call that an example of biomimicry, or merely that great minds think alike?

In any case, if one wonders why a high tech inventor like myself bothered to study not only physics, but psychology and biology, one need look to further than at nature, the greatest technologist of all.

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