The Gecko's Foot
By Henry Nortsford
The book discusses several examples of how scientists, architects and engineers are looking at imitating (or mimicking) nature when it comes to engineering. Whether is it hard-wearing enamel in teeth, spider silk, gecko’s feet or the amazingly strong byssus threads that anchor mussels and other bivalves to the ocean floor, nature seems to be one step, and in several cases many miles, ahead of our best technology.
Take a case in point, the gecko’s foot. We all know they can climb glass and walls with incredible ease and jump about with unerring dexterity, but how do they do it, and why can’t we do the same with the help of science? Gecko feet don’t use suction or capillary action or other simple explanation given by many, each foot in fact has a million bristles and each bristle ends in a tiny flat projection that is similar in shape to a kitchen spatula. The minute detail of the feet has only recently been seen, and new powerful microscopes have only just made it possible to see these tiny bristles and even tinier projections.
To make something as complex and effective is beyond the scope of what we can currently do with our microengineering, but this could definitely be a good use of nanotechnology, and scientists in this field have already made good inroads into what nature has started. Dubbed ‘smart science’, physicists and engineers are looking toward other parallels with nature, as Peter Forbes explains so well in this engaging book.
For example, he describes the way Velcro was inspired when George de Mestral took his dog for a walk and, finding burrs all over him, took a closer look at the tiny hooks. Also how petals opening from buds gave rise to new designs of solar-powered satellites and how self-cleaning leaves of the Sacred Lotus plant are inspiring research into the first self-cleaning window panes. All this discussion is delivered with lashings of anecdote and analysis in perfect harmony.
Anyone interested in the latest trends in science and engineering would find this book fascinating. It is tomorrow’s science, today.
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[Peter Forbes, The Gecko’s Foot: Bio-inspiration - Engineering New Materials and Devices from Nature. Fourth Estate, ISBN 0007179901, 2005].