Shark Illustrated: Swimsuit Edition

At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, 28 of 33 Olympic Gold Medals were earned in Speedo Fastskin, a swimsuit overall that reduces water’s drag on the swimmer by 3%. The overalls lowered swimming times of professional swimmers by some 7.5%. The suit’s fluid dynamics are based on sharks’ skin, a design that has turned many fish and the occasional Australian surfer into tasty dinner for the shark family (class actually).

The Fastskin is an excellent example of successful biomimicry (see glossary), where someone has studied a good “design” in nature and mimicked it to create something useful, in this case a fabric with desirable qualities. Biomimicry is more common than people might think and affects things we use everyday.

The best example of straight forward biomimicry might be “touch fasteners”, better known as Velcro®:

    Swiss inventor George de Mestral went out to a walk the dog. When he returned home he found that his dog’s coat and his own pants were covered with cockleburrs. His inventor’s curiosity led him to study the burrs under a microscope, where he discovered their natural hook-like shape.

    This was to become the basis for a unique, two-sided fastener – one side with stiff “hooks” like the burrs and the other side with the soft “loops” like the fabric of his pants. The result was VELCRO brand hook and loop fasteners, named for the French words “velour” and “crochet.”

I think it is fair to say that most of us western people use a touch fastener of some sort every day.

These are two examples of pure biomimicry, but obviously a lot of our design uses nature as a role model in some way. Early flight experimenters studied the flight of birds, Alexander Graham Bell was mimicking the ear drum when he created the later-to-be-named-microphone for the first telephone and branches of artificial intelligence try to mimic human intelligence.

Nature has often come up with excellent solutions to problems that we humans are also seeking solutions to, and why reinvent the wheel (pun very much intended)?

A point to keep in mind however is that nature’s solutions are not perfect. People sometimes jump to the conclusion that nature has found the best solutions to the problems it faces. This is wrong. Nature has found exactly sufficiently good solutions to serve its purpose, no better than that. As long as a species’ environment doesn’t change, there is no selection for solutions that will do even better. Of course nature may overshoot from time to time, but not by a big margin and only occasionally. Furthermore there is even mathematical proof to the fact that nature has not had the time to try out all the possible combinations to find the optimal solutions to a problem and the best solutions. (thanks Skuli)

I actually intend to write a paper on this during the autumn, so you will see more on this note later on.

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