July 4, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

Celebrate Independence from Darwin

With so much great science news about design, who needs to maintain allegiance to King Charles?

Pledging allegiance to Charles Darwin is like taxation without representation, since it provides no benefit to most of the cutting-edge science that actually brings practical applications for people. When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to dissolve the philosophical bands that bind scientists to evolutionary theory, and to imitate the designs to which they are entitled by nature and nature’s God, let facts be presented to a candid world.

Squishy robots: Step aside, R2D2 and C3PO. Your metallic hides are already obsolete. Soft skins and soft motors are the rage in “squishy robots,” says Science Daily. Soft parts absorb blows better, making them more able to negotiate uneven terrain. Some motorized wheels being tested at Rutgers imitate the peristalsis movements of the human esophagus, and have textures like a human calf muscle.

Soft exoskeletons: On a related front, Steve Davis advises, “Forget Iron Man: skintight suits are the future of robotic exoskeletons.” In The Conservation, he describes how stretchy, soft skins may help disabled children with rare neurological diseases to walk again with comfort. The heavy exoskeletons that have recently showed promise can be replaced by soft, skintight suits that mimic real skin, activated with embedded electronics. After all, caterpillars don’t wear steel.

Human see, robot do: Here’s a tough challenge for robot designers: making their inventions see the way human eyes see. New Scientist says, “Robot eyes and humans fix on different things to decode a scene.” Designers at Virginia Tech are trying to understand the difference. “Machines do not seem to be looking at the same regions as humans, which suggests that we do not understand what they are basing their decisions on.” The challenge is, “Can we make them more human-like, and will that translate to higher accuracy?”

Olive Oyl: Popeye would be happy to see his girlfriend pitching olive pits for fuel and water purification. PhysOrg writes, “Scientists have demonstrated that olive stones can be used during nine cycles to clean waste from industrial metals discharged in water and as an environmentally friendly biofuel.”

Electronic nose: The next must-have electronic device after the vacuuming robot may be the electronic nose. “Smell is one of the senses of humans and animals, and there have been many efforts to build an electronic nose,” says a researcher at the University of Texas. It’s proven a very difficult sense to imitate, but scientists are getting warmer. See Science Daily report.

Mussel baby: Without doubt, saving a baby is better than aborting it. UC Berkeley scientists are attempting to make fetal surgery safer and more effective through the use of adhesives inspired by mussels, reports PhysOrg.

Smart connections: Mimicking the synapses or gaps between neurons, scientists in Korea are attempting to build computers with more power and speed. Live Science says that with new ‘artificial synapses,’ we can expect “better robots, self-driving cars, data mining, medical diagnosis, stock-trading analysis and ‘other smart human-interactive systems and machines in the future,'” with connections that imitate the human brain.

Rational nanodesign: Want an ideal material for building things at the nanometer scale? Try DNA. Science Daily says that “DNA shaping up to be ideal framework for rationally designed nanostructures: Shaped DNA frames that precisely link nanoparticles into different structures offer platform for designing functional nanomaterials.” Read all about it in the article.

Fake chlorophyll: Reaching for the holy grail of artificial photosynthesis, Nature Communications discloses the results of Chinese research on light-harvesting structures based on the plant pigment carotene. The structure they tested is similar to the main component in photosynthesis. “Remarkably, compared with molecular carotene or chlorophyll, this synthesized suprastructure exhibits some photocatalytic activity when exposed to light, which can be exploited for photocatalytic reaction studies of energy capture and solar conversion in living organisms.” Meanwhile, scientists at Washington University in St. Louis, publishing in PNAS, are getting good results with cysteine for regulating their photosynthetic antenna complexes.

Rosy solar panels: Is this a case of “flower power”? Rose petals have inspired more efficient solar cells, Science Daily reports. Rose petals “use a possibly large portion of the sun’s light spectrum and to trap the light from various incidence angles as the angle changes with the sun’s position.” The article attributes this to evolution: “Plants have this capability as a result of a long evolution process — reason enough for photovoltaics researchers to look closely at nature when developing solar cells with a broad absorption spectrum and a high incidence angle tolerance.” It’s doubtful the scientists used Darwin’s book in the actual research, though.

Ant traffic flow: Tired of the stop-and-go traffic on the commute? Go to the ant, thou prisoner of old-fashioned highway design. “Tiny and industrious, ants are models of teamwork and efficiency,” PhysOrg says of another nature-inspired project. Ants are masters of optimization. “The picnic-wrecking insects could also teach city planners a thing or two about how to optimize the timing of traffic signals, according to students at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS).”

Do the salamander walk: Swiss scientists have created an “artificial salamander” robot that mimics the gait of the slimy amphibians. The BBC News sees good beyond the feat of the feet: “The researchers hope that by replicating the salamander’s movement, the robot amphibian can teach them more about the interplay between the spinal cord and the body in vertebrates, and so aid development of therapies and neuroprosthetics for paraplegic patients and amputees.”

Skin so soft: Nature sees a brighter future in “stretchable and bio-integrated electronics, microfluidics, tissue engineering, soft robotics and biomedical devices,” now that a team of scientists has developed “Skin-inspired hydrogel–elastomer hybrids with robust interfaces and functional microstructures” inspired by mammalian skins.

Materials race: PhysOrg thinks we are finally “matching – or exceeding – nature’s ability to make strong, tough lightweight structural materials.” That may be debatable, since already “In nature, wood, shells, and other structural materials are lightweight, strong, and tough.” Research in “biomaterials” is proceeding apace, though, by applying the “design principles” found in the natural world.

Lotus metal: One of the first biomimetic inspirations was the lotus leaf, with its superhydrophobic capacity to make water drops bead up and roll off. PhysOrg says that the lotus is inspiring “scientists to create world’s first self-cleaning metals” that will not only resist water but bacteria as well. An experimental material called TresClean has numerous potential applications; “any use of metal that needs to avoid the formation of bacteria will benefit from the TresClean product, such as medical cutting tools, sterile surfaces, dishwashers, or even saucepans.”

In most of these articles, evolution is never mentioned, or just gets a passing reference that assumes the quality come about over millions of years of natural selection. The assumption has not real import on the findings.

All this Darwin-free design is cause for fireworks! Declare independence from King Charles, have a hot dog, and celebrate. Biomimetics promises a new birth of science of the people, by the people, and for the people, under God, with liberty and justice for all.


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