November 19, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Eyes on the Prize: Science Sees Gold in Biomimetics

A fly eye made the cover of Science this week.1  It’s not that the compound eye is interesting to entomologists; MSNBC News picked up on the real message: “Animal eyes inspire new technology – Researchers learn optics lessons from biology.”  The cover story is about biomimetics, or reverse-engineering nature.  Scientists are looking for ways to imitate the energy-efficient, densely-packed, space-saving technologies exhibited in animal eyes to improve artificial sensors, microscopes and cameras.  The authors of the cover story explained their mission:

Observing systems in nature has inspired humans to create technological tools that allow us to better understand and imitate biologyBiomimetics, in particular, owes much of its current development to advances in materials science and creative optical system designs.  New investigational tools, such as those for microscopic imaging and chemical analyses, have added to our understanding of biological optics.  Biologically inspired optical science has become the emerging topic among researchers and scientists.

From the ten kinds of visual systems featured among living animals, scientists will have to start easy.  They won’t attempt to model the complex retinal eyes of mammals or cephalopods, but will start with the prism-like compound eyes of insects.
    In the article, the eyes of various animals are described, as well as properties of our own human variety.  Lobster eyes might help us build better X-ray telescopes.  Brittlestars might help us focus light with liquids.  Beetles might help us build better infrared sensors.  The possibilities seem endless; improvements in cameras and sensing devices are just some examples of benefits to be gained from searching “nature’s wisdom.”  The authors conclude that the time is ripe for a creative synergy between man and beast:

Imitating nature is a complex endeavor, and a blind biomimetic approach is not the best methodology.  Instead, molecular-level studies of the biological development of natural vision systems are key.  For example, current infrared sensors can distinguish more than what human eyes can see, but they require a sophisticated cooling system to work.  Somehow, insects have this same ability without the limitation of temperature control. This is but one example of how it is primarily nature’s designs that are superior to man-made equivalents.  However, if we are able to decode the designs, then the combination of our creativity in materials and nature’s wisdom is [a] synergistic one with incredible potential.

In another article in the same issue,2 George Mayer (U of Washington) discussed efforts to mimic the rigid composite materials found in molluscs and sponges.  The biological materials are enviable because of their viscoelastic properties, ability to resist the propagation of cracks, and ability to sustain loads without strain.  Mimicking those properties are challenging enough, but living systems have abilities far more interesting.  Mayer ended: “Of immense significance, too, are features that have been observed, but researchers have thus far been unable to replicate in synthetic systems, such as the ability for self-repair and the exceptional tenacity at interfaces.”

1Luke P. Lee and Robert Szema, “Inspirations from Biological Optics for Advanced Photonic Systems,” Science, 18 November 2005: Vol. 310. no. 5751, pp. 1148 – 1150; DOI: 10.1126/science.1115248.
2George Mayer, “Rigid Biological Systems as Models for Synthetic Composites,” Science, 18 November 2005: Vol. 310. no. 5751, pp. 1144 – 1147, DOI: 10.1126/science.1116994.

There was no mention of evolution in thess papers; not even of natural selection, Darwin, or millions of years.  Who needs it?  This is the cutting-edge of science and technology for the 21st century: a design-inspired approach to science that not only will bring exciting new benefits to society but will help us “understand and imitate biology.”  This is exactly the kind of “methodological engineering” that William Dembski predicted in The Design Revolution (IVP, 2004, p. 312) would show that ID has the power to generate fruitful research.
    If you are a tired Darwinist reading this, here is your way out.  Kick the Charlie habit and get in on the leading edge of biomimetics.  No more need for storytelling or fantasizing – just real-world research with “incredible potential” – and it looks incredibly fun, too.  It will push technology to the limit.  Field biologists can still go out and collect species for study, but now with a new vision instead of force-fitting everything into imaginary phylogenetic trees.  Lab technicians can devise new ways to measure and study phenomena.  Profs and grad students can stay gainfully busy.  It’s the cure for overspecialization: think of the new interdisciplinary labs that could be built (10/29/2005).  Dollars and research papers will flow.  The government would love to fund this kind of research.  If you can propose spin-offs for the military, antiterrorism, medicine, or “green” technology, your future is secure.  It will take the pressure off the origins battle.  Politicians, theologians, teachers and the public will love you for it.  It’s a complete win-win situation for science and for humankind, while old worries about Darwinism, like dead autumn leaves, will simply drop off and wither away for historians to sweep up.

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