December 3, 2018 | David F. Coppedge

The Best Science Follows the Designs in Nature

The most fruitful kind of research seeks to understand nature’s workings, and when appropriate, imitate it.

How do flying bees make perfect turns? ( A perfect turn requires keeping centrifugal force constant, and bees do it. Researchers at the University of Queensland studied bees in a chamber with high-speed photography. Using vector calculus, they mathematically analyzed the turns for speed, curvature, and centrifugal force.

Significantly, bees were able to maintain a largely constant centripetal acceleration while turning, regardless of how sharp the turns were or how fast the bees were travelling, which minimised the effects of centrifugal force on their flight path. Centripetal force pulls an object towards the centre of the turn, while centrifugal force pushes it away from the centre.

The bees were equally competent at left and right turns. As with birds, bats and humans, bees slow down approaching a turn and speed up on exit. What was noteworthy is that “When a bee is making a turn, it cleverly reduces its speed in an appropriate way so that the centrifugal force that it experiences is always constant.

What the scientists learned could improve performance in aerial robots and ground vehicles, a short video clip explains. If you’ve ever skidded on a turn, you could use help from bee intelligence.

Aquatic animals that jump out of water inspire leaping robots (Science Daily). Many sea creatures, from flying fish to breaching whales, leap out of the water from time to time. A Cornell scientist and grad student found that “Aquatic animals’ maximum jumping height is related to their body size, while ‘entrained water mass’ plays a limiting role.” Entrained water mass is the water the animal brings up with it. A tiny copepod just a millimeter in size has to cope with this physical reality as does a dolphin. Most leaping animals are streamlined, making the effort easier.

“We collected data about aquatic animals of different sizes – from about 1 millimeter to tens of meters – jumping out of water, and were able to reveal how their maximum jumping heights are related to their body size,” said Jung.

In nature, animals frequently move in and out of water for various purposes — including escaping predators, catching prey, or communicating. “But since water is 1,000 times denser than air, entering or exiting water requires a lot of effort, so aquatic animals face mechanical challenges,” Jung said.

The results were presented at a meeting of the American Physical Society. Dr Jung said, “We’re trying to understand how biological systems are able to smartly figure out and overcome these challenges to maximize their performance, which might also shed light on engineering systems to enter or exit air-water interfaces.”

Move over Rover: There’s a new sniffing powerhouse in the neighborhood (Science Daily). Another presentation at the American Physical Society concerned animals with a “superpower” sense of smell. Forensic teams and medical researchers often use dogs to assist in finding targets. Elephants have a profoundly good sense of smell, too. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, known for its biomimetics program, decided to “study animals’ unique sense of smell to develop improved chemical sensors.” The result: a new kind of electronic nose, inspired by nature.

“We turned to animals to understand what nature has already figured out,” said Thomas Spencer, a doctoral candidate in David Hu’s lab at Georgia Tech. “We are applying the underlying principles that we learned about these mechanisms to design a better sensor.

One thing they learned is that sniffing speed is related to body size. Mice sniff much faster than elephants, for instance. From this knowledge, they are developing a customized oscillating pump that controls the airflow. It’s still a fairly new study at this time, but they hope to get better as they try to match what animals do so well.

Bioinspired ultra-stretchable and anti-freezing conductive hydrogel fibers with ordered and reversible polymer chain alignment (Nature Communications).  “Stretchable electronics” could be used in many applications, such as stretchable sensors and supercapacitors. Enter the famous biomimetic champion, the spider. “Here we show a simple spinning method to prepare conductive hydrogel fibers with ordered polymer chain alignment that mimics the hierarchically organized structure of spider silk.” Pause for a little praise for what these tiny animals do:

In nature, spiders spin silk fibers from aqueous protein solutions at ambient conditions. The hierarchically organized structure of spider silk and its unique spinning process are the key factors to achieve its superb properties. For example, spider dragline silk is a semi-crystalline protein polymer, where alanine-rich crystalline regions are connected by soft glycine-rich amorphous regions as linkers. Inspired by the organized structure and the unique spinning process of spider silk, we propose to develop a simple spinning method to prepare conductive hydrogel fibers with ordered and reversible chain alignment from aqueous solution of polyelectrolytes at ambient conditions.

Spotting nature’s own evolution of quantum tricks could transform quantum technology ( Yes, biology knows about quantum mechanics, too. Engineers at the University of Warwick are looking at creatures that master QM for ideas. QM looms large in new technologies, such as quantum computing, new energy sources and sensors. Why not see how plants and animals use it? It’s difficult to observe this, but researchers are hot on the trail:

Dr. Knee added: “The possibilities are tantalising: if our proposed test were carried out in a biological system, and returned a positive result, we might be able to learn quantum engineering design principles from nature. We could then try to create biomimetic technologies that are more robust and perhaps even more powerful than the current generation of quantum technologies, which are almost exclusively based on highly isolated systems. If we were able to turbocharge artificial light harvesting, such as in a solar cell for example, there would be a huge potential for providing affordable, renewable energy.”

More examples in tomorrow’s entry!

Hurrah for biomimetics! Teach it to your kids. Have them do it as a science project. If they invent a useful biomimetic device, they could make a fortune, and you could retire in comfort. They will also learn to appreciate design, and what it takes to make a device work. Undoubtedly they will marvel at how nature does it, and this will lead to increased doubts that Darwinism is up to the task. Stuff doesn’t just happen.

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