Los Angeles Times science writer Khan debuts with a richly detailed account of biologically inspired engineering.
Snakes that fly; geckos that walk on walls; blindfolded seals that track swimming objects by following their invisible wakes. These are among the “weird and wonderful” discoveries in nature that are helping scientists find ways to improve human technology, writes the author of this meticulous, well-written book. Following researchers from Woods Hole to an African desert, she reveals how cutting-edge, multidisciplinary research is harnessing the efficiency of nature’s “most astounding innovations” to make human life better “in a world where we’re running out of resources, in which we need to learn to live sustainably.” Grouping her stories into thematic sections—materials science, mechanics of movement, architecture of systems, and sustainability—she offers lucid, engaging discussions of a remarkable range of scientific work. Consider the cuttlefish, a cousin of the octopus. A shape-shifter with the many-fingered face of H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional god, Cthulhu, the creature can blend in to its surroundings by changing colors and patterns (with an obvious application to camouflage). It uses the same color-changing to hypnotize prey. Other stories show how scientists are building robots that mimic the gecko’s ability to cling to smooth walls (for possible use in disaster zones); refining hydrogen-producing artificial leaves that can serve as clean, renewable energy sources; and studying mound-building termites to inform human architecture. Khan explores fully the science behind nature’s many innovative abilities and how it is being harnessed. At the same time, she offers fascinating portraits of scientists at work—e.g., the ant researcher who studies the “personalities” of some 300 ant colonies in annual visits to the Southwest and two physicists whose dead-serious study of termite mounds is offset by their hilarious “odd-couple” behavior, reminiscent of the TV sitcom Parks and Recreation.
These well-crafted tales of bio-inspired innovation will entrance general readers and warrant the close attention of scientists and technologists.