Tuesday, March 15, 2011

All scientists need to observe nature; not just biologists

Thanks to billions of years of evolution, natural systems have gained a certain perfection in terms of structure, processes and functions. It is therefore not very surprising that many scientists have gained inspiration from nature for their own discoveries or inventions. We have been encountering such examples in our textbooks, right from primary school. Gravity was discovered when an apple fell on Newton's head and set him thinking. Velcro came about when a scientist noticed how the seeds of the burdock plant stuck to his coat and his dog's fur and stayed put there till pulled out.

The interesting fact is that nature continues to inspire researchers in all fields, including IT, electronics and communications. Neural networks based on the working of the human brain, semiconductor chip fabrication techniques inspired by the designs on butterfly wings, submarine designs inspired by the fins of whales, and a lot more. Sometimes, this inspiration comes completely by chance. But, a lot of times, scientists decide to consciously and systematically seek solutions from nature. There are different approaches to doing this - and that happens to be the subject of my article for Electronics for You's April issue.

Some scientists keep on, unrelentingly, observing nature confident that they will eventually come across some brilliant ideas. Some scientists observe nature keenly to find answers to specific research problems they are trying to overcome. Some scientists notice things in nature that could solve their research problems, but completely by chance. Some scientists merely take inspiration from nature while others try to also imitate the natural structure or process in their artificial system. Each of these is a different genre of bio-inspired technology.

While researching these different approaches to nature-inspired technology creation, I came across so many interesting personalities who have, in recent times, gained inspiration from nature for their research work. Dr. Akhlesh Lakhtakia of Pennsylvania State University, for example, was inspired by Ulexite or TV rock. Subsequent investigation and experiments led to the development of sculptured thin films (nano-engineered meta-materials). Dr. Vinay Vaidya and his team at KPIT Cummins came up with a patent-pending night vision system inspired by the cardioid shape of a leaf he noticed in the garden. Dr. Kwabena Boahen and his team at Stanford University have developed a million neuron system called the Neurogrid, a neuromorphic project based on the structure and functioning of the brain. Dr. Judith Braganca and her team at BITs-Pilani's Goa campus are developing a nature-inspired sunscreen. There are so many more examples of nature-inspired technologies by these and other teams across the world, and it is also interesting to note that many of these nature-inspired researches have gone on to become commercially successful products too.

However, we need to keep in mind that while nature-inspired research is truly fantastic, it is not fantasy. The inspiration is only the first step. A lot of in-depth, systematic, multi-disciplinary research is required to convert the inspiration into an impactful technology!