January 29, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

Good Science Bears Good Fruit

Science may not understand reality, but individual scientists know what can benefit other people.

Yesterday’s post questioned science’s grip on reality. Its truth keeps evolving, reversing itself and leaving people confused about ‘expert’ opinion. But there is one way to judge good science: what does it produce for human flourishing? Is that not the goal of science? Science is done by people, for people. Flourishing can include understanding, awe, gratitude, health and convenience. Health can include warnings about things that could cause harm to us. The good fruits of science presuppose intense observation of natural phenomena to understand how they work. Here are some fruits to judge that arrived fresh in the marketplace of ideas.

Rubber ‘leaves’ reveal the physics of the floating lotus (Nature). A fruitful study of lotus leaves does not require sitting in a lotus position and switching your brain to idle. Chinese scientists observed them carefully and noticed that the leaves lie flat in water, but buckle when lifted into the air. Experiments with rubber sheets showed the same response. There’s probably an invention waiting to be thought of from this observation.

Superrepellency of underwater hierarchical structures on Salvinia leaf (PNAS). Salvinia is a class of floating fern, sometimes called watermoss. When engineers make devices that can float with “air mattress” bubbles on the surface of water, they tend to lose their cushion and slip into the drink. The trick behind the success of watermoss depends on “interconnected wedge-shaped grooves on the base” of the leaf that can recover the air mattress. These scientists 3-D printed materials that mimic the Salvinia leaf and perform much better. “This finding will greatly extend the underwater applications of water-repellant surfaces.”

Bioinspired sonar reflectors as guiding beacons for autonomous navigation (PNAS). Interested in those futuristic self-driving cars? Engineers are taking cues from bat sonar to learn how to put signals outside in the environment that can help avoid obstacles or attract the car to a desirable goal.

Bat-pollinated flowers guide and attract bats with acoustically conspicuous floral reflectors, detectable even in cluttered surroundings. We present how landmarks inspired by these floral forms can be used as guiding beacons and even be used as local source of information. Bioinspired landmarks can be very efficient tools, opening doors for new applications of sonar sensors and safer autonomous navigation.

The most beautiful solar cells are inspired by nature (Phys.org). Scientists at the Norwegian Institute of Technology studied molecules in photosynthesizing plants, and created “organic” solar cells based on what they found. “The researchers have drawn their inspiration from molecules in nature that plants use when capturing sunlight, and have recreated similar structures in the lab.”

Bioinspired materials reveal useful properties (Arizona State University). Being able to custom-design materials for particular needs is a huge goal for materials scientists. Ongoing work at ASU is “inspired by mechanisms in nature, where the complex three-dimensional structure of surrounding proteins influences the electrochemical properties of metals at their core.” They’re speaking of natural catalysts called enzymes, which are far more creative and specific than man-made versions. For instance, catalysts used to split water for hydrogen tend to be flat and clunky.

Nature, however, has found a cheaper and more efficient means of hydrogen production. “Biology doesn’t use two dimensional sheets of platinum,” Moore explains. Instead, life forms carry out this transformation with the aid of specialized enzymes. “Enzymes often contain metal centers where the reactivity is occurring, but their specificity comes from their unique three-dimensional structures.

Illustra Media’s beautiful documentary shares many design wonders in butterflies.

Beating the heat in the living wings of butterflies (Phys.org). We’ve reported often on butterfly colors, how their scale structures interfere with light to produce vibrant color without pigment. That ability, it turns out, continues into the infrared. Columbia University researchers found that the heat produced helps the butterflies stay warm in cold weather and avoid overheating in warm weather. Hmmmm; great idea!

“Each wing of a butterfly is equipped with a few dozen mechanical sensors that provide real-time feedback to enable complex flying patterns,” Yu says. “This is an inspiration for designing the wings of flying machines: perhaps wing design should not be solely based on considerations of flight dynamics, and wings designed as an integrated sensory-mechanical system could enable flying machines to perform better in complex aerodynamic conditions.”

Robotic gripping mechanism mimics how sea anemones catch prey (Phys.org). The American Institute of Physics tells how Chinese researchers took inspiration from sea anemones to design a gripping tool that is more flexible than robotic fingers. “The bionic torus captures and releases objects by crimping its skin,” this article explains. “The grasper not only is relatively cheap and easy to produce but also can grab a variety of objects of different sizes, shapes, weights and materials.”

Brain-inspired computing for a post-Moore’s Law era (Phys.org). Some people remember when computer programs were measured in bytes. Moore’s Law predicted the rise from kilobytes to megabytes to gigabytes to terabytes that we’re in today, and it never seems to be enough. Continuing Moore’s Law may depend on mimicking the brain. “The future of computing will not be about cramming more components on a chip but in rethinking processor architecture from the ground up to emulate how a brain efficiently processes information.”

Mimicking nature requires understanding how it works. Understanding how it works requires detailed observation and analysis. This is the kind of science that promotes human flourishing, both with practical benefits, and with the joy of understanding how well-designed things work. It’s a win-win kind of science.

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