September 6, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Butterfly Wings Xeroxed

If you can’t build it, copy it.  Scientists have had a hard time reconstructing the photonic crystals that make butterfly wings shimmer with light (01/29/2003), so they made, in effect, a carbon copy.  PhysOrg described how scientists at Penn State made impressions of the regularly-spaced geometric shapes from a butterfly wing and transferred it to glass, leaving a “positive mold that looks the same as the butterfly wing from the top.”  Maybe instead of biomimetics this could be dubbed biomimeographics.
    What do they want to do with their replicated photonic crystal?  They have their eyes on semiconductor devices, infrared sensors, solar energy concentrators and other things no one has thought of yet.  What they know is that the “structural color” reflected by these crystals will be pure and intense.  That’s bound to be useful or just pretty.

True science seeks to understand a natural phenomenon with observation, equations and experiments, with an eye toward improving human life.  It’s not necessary to tell a story about how the butterfly invented a technology that human intelligence can photocopy but not yet engineer.

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