Unlike most people, biologist and author Janine Benyus had let that architectural, beautiful wasp nest in her yard stay, and grow bigger. One day, her little neighbor, a curious seven year boy named Cody came to her asking – “How did you make this house for the wasps?“
This question struck Janine as odd. How come a kid all of seven, already had a notion, that if something is so precise and impressive, it had to be made by humans? Why would he not know, that we aren’t the first ones to build houses for our young?
The fact is, there is so much ingenuity in the way plants, animals, birds and insects go about their lives in the natural world, that we can learn from them and apply those learnings for our own innovative design solutions across various industries.
Honeycombs made by bees have inspired numerous space saving engineering designs, the latest and greatest example being the James Webb Space Telescope. The super water-repellent quality of Lotus leaves have inspired self-cleaning surface coatings. The tendency of Aspen leaves to tremble at the slightest breeze was aped to make a wind-harvesting device that could power Mars Rovers. Snakes have provided inspiration for building a flexible, self-propelled robot for remote operations in unstructured, uneven environment.
These are just a few of the numerous examples of how in recent decades scientists all over the world are adapting nature’s best, time-tested ideas to solve our modern day problems. One of the greatest scientific minds of all times, theoretical physicist Albert Einstein (March 14, 1879- April 18, 1955) said:
Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.
Everything that is living in the natural world today, holds answers for us to create a beautiful, resilient, regenerative world. After all, these organisms have found, evolved and optimized the best strategies to survive over the course of 3.8 billion years – the period of time life has been here. This practice of learning from and mimicking the strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges is called – Biomimicry, a term popularized by Janine in her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.
Since the time she was a young forestry student, Janine believed in this genius present in the organisms others than humans, the rest of the natural world that is. Plants & animals that know how to live gracefully on this planet. In her words,
It is time to quiet our cleverness, to observe
and listen deeply, and reconnect to nature’s
wisdom by asking, “How does nature solve this?
With a vision of a world mentored by nature’s genius and a future in which intelligent human innovation & development contributes to thriving ecosystems, instead of disrupting them, Janine co-founded The Biomimicry Institute.
I felt like hitting a treasure trove of interestingness, inspiration and awe when I found AskNature.org, a portal to the wisdom nature holds, where the organization has curated about 1700 strategies developed by living things that achieve thousands of different functions. For anyone like me, with a science/tech background and deep love for nature, browsing through this outstanding collection of biomimicry examples would be simply addictive. I will share one of my favorites here.
When you think of a “bullet train”, the image to conjure up in your mind would most probably be a sleek, superfast train with that peculiar slim, narrow, sharp shaped front. Well, that was not always the case.
The train in question is Japan’s Shinkasen – a network of high-speed railway lines of the country. Decades ago people outside Japan started to call it a “bullet train” because, well, its front looked like a bullet, a much more rounded shape than what we see today.
Carrying millions of passengers every year these bullet trains travel throughout the country at speeds of 150–200 mph. In the initial years, the high speeds caused an atmospheric pressure wave to build up in front of the train. When it would travel through tunnels, the wave would cause a loud sonic boom at the exit which could be heard 400 meters away, disturbing nearby residents.
During late 90s, an engineering team were called to find a way for the train to travel more quietly without sacrificing speed or using more energy. Luckily for them, the general manager of the team Eiji Nakatsu was an avid birder. And of course, he knew the Kingfisher.
Kingfishers are these magnificent birds, with shining blue color that change in light – from this lustrous blue to a sparkling green. In some parts of the world therefore, they are called flying Jewels.
As their name suggest, they catch fish. And they are simply superb at that. They perch above a river or stream, waiting for a fish to become visible in the water beneath. As soon as it happens, they dive straight into the water at speed as fast as 25 mph. But, they barely make a splash. They have a long, narrow, pointed, dagger-like bill, that steadily increases in diameter from the tip to its head. So, when the Kingfisher hits water, its impact is minimal, making this bird’s entry so smooth and silent, its prey gets no chance to get an alert.
This observation about the kingfisher proved to be a game-changer for Eiji Nakatsu and his team. They re-designed the front end of their bullet train to mimic the shape of the kingfisher’s beak. Not only did this reduce noise and eliminated tunnel booms, it also allowed the train to use 15% less electricity and travel 10% faster! :)
Their beak is not the only innovation inspiration this fascinating bird provide. Know all biomimicry strategies and innovations to learn from the Kingfishers, here!
Once upon a time we understood and honored our oneness with biosphere. At that time, observing nature and learning from it was innate to us. Then, thousands of generations ago, as we evolved from hunter-gatherers, to farmers to today’s modern people, who are more distant from nature than ever before in the history of earth, we forgot what animals, birds, plants and trees still know.
We have become prisoners of our own limited minds lost in the maze of complex conditioning by our societies, educations, cultures and their problems. To access simple, pure intelligence again, to find our way home – We will have to turn to nature, again.
Article ©2022 Gyaneshwari Dave