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Study, understand and use nature

Adapt. How humans are tapping into nature's secrets to design and build a better future
Forfatter: Amina Khan
Forlag: St. Martin’s Press (USA)
Broadly oriented science journalist Amina Khan shows how nature can teach us a thing or two about sustainable technology.


Natural science is "in". With good reason. Science is exciting, expanding consciousness and useful. Yes, bent forward is necessary, not least for the survival of our and other species. Why? Because we humans have driven it so far that the modern, technology-driven society risks destroying large parts of its own natural basis. Nor can we use our inherent curiosity to learn more about nature, instead of just dominating it? So does science writer Amina Khan. In the book Adapt. How humans are tapping into nature's secrets to design and build a better future, she gives us an insight into some of the latest on the research and business front.

Wide background. Amina Khan is writing in the Los Angeles Times. From what one can google, she has a wide field of impact, and has covered and explained everything from mars landings to issues of dark matter, health and astrophysics. She is now debuting as a science communicator in book form and we are getting a detailed study in biologically inspired engineering. In addition, we get a fascinating glimpse into the animals' miserable world: flying snakes, geckos going up and down walls, seals with blindfolds that track swimming objects just by following the wave energy. There's a bit of Attenborough all over it.

Technological developments are often side effects of the aerospace adventure or military needs.

We quickly understand that nature gives us many examples of animals with characteristics that not only fascinate, but which we now also want to understand. Then copy. Because with this we can improve our own technology.

Biomimicry is an imitation of models, systems and elements of nature, with the aim of solving complex human problems, according to an English Wikipedia page. The term, like so many others in science, derives from ancient Greek: βίος (bios), life and μίμησις (mīmēsis), imitation.

Nature's own recipe. Living organisms have developed well-adapted structures and materials. They have done this not only in our historical time, but over geological time, and then through what Charles Darwin called natural selection. Biomimicry then has the potential to perhaps give us a direct "recipe" for new technology, both at macro and nanoscale, based on what we find around us.

Humans have looked to nature for answers to problems throughout our existence. It may have slowed somewhat with the breakthrough of industrialism. Our hunger to control the environment around us, and to submit to nature, has been dominant for the last 250 years. So far, this process has come to the fore that we're talking about a new geological epoch, the human epoch, anthropocene.

Trying and failing. The author goes on a journey, both in the world of science and into the field. We join her around the vast United States, but also to tough desert areas in Africa. Along the way, she interviews professionals and entrepreneurs. Many are top researchers, and perhaps therefore with a realistic relationship to what they do. They are optimists by nature, but know that research is trial and error. It makes the book extra readable, in my opinion. Things take time. You just have to know what you're looking for.

The book is divided into four thematic sections. One about materials, one about movement and one about systems and ways one builds, such as termites or bees. The last and fourth part are about sustainability in a slightly broader sense, such as in big cities that have to learn to live in harmony with the ecosystems they are a part of. Humans are also animals, and animals are incredibly good at doing more with less. If a fly's eye can see without hundreds of fancy lenses, and termite peaks can stay cold in the desert without air-conditioning, then it goes without saying that nature can teach us a thing or two about sustainable technology and innovation. Not to mention what we might learn from fishing hours cooperation and energy use.

The military and space travel. Khan writes well about the sepia squid, one of the planet's most intelligent molluscs. This squid species has a remarkable ability to change both color and texture of the skin. It does this both to camouflage itself and to send signals to other species traps. This form of camouflage is, of course, of interest to any country's military. Here lies some of the discomfort in the story. A lot of new technology has come to us as a side effect of either the space adventure or military needs. Other stories Kahn brings up are how scientists build robots that mimic the gecko's ability to climb slippery walls. Such abilities can be good to have during possible disasters, after storms and the like. Very relevant is the story of the attempt to refine energy from hydrogen-producing artificial leaves, which can serve as clean, renewable energy sources.

Robots that mimic the gecko's ability to climb slippery walls ...

Demanding substance. The book deserves a wide readership. It is not necessarily easily accessible, but personally I consider it a good one. I had to stretch in some parties. Just as I had when I read Dag O. Hessen's popular science book C. carbon – an unauthorized biography (Cappelen Dam 2015). Of course, reading about carbon history, although popular, requires a little concentration, especially when you have some gaps in the periodic table and more. But if you stick with it, the enrichment comes in the form of increased understanding.

The same goes for Khan. Therefore, both physician and scholar will probably enjoy her book. The only publisher that could have spent on it was a few more subtitles. Without subtitles, there are a few breaks to "rest" your gaze through the four main columns. That makes it all unnecessarily monotonous.

But there are details. The underlying wonder, the journalistic inquiry, the new knowledge and the possible new technologies this can lead to make the book more than reader friendly enough.


Andrew P. Kroglund
Andrew P. Kroglund
Kroglund is a critic and writer. Also Secretary General of BKA (Grandparents' Climate Action).

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