How Biomimicry is Inspiring Human Innovation
By Tom Vanderbilt
Smithsonian magazine, September 2012
Creative minds are increasingly turning to nature—banyan tree leaves, butterfly wings, a bird's beak— for fresh design solutions.
The idea behind the increasingly influential discipline of biomimicry: that we human beings, who have been trying to make things for only the blink of an evolutionary eye, have a lot to learn from the long processes of natural selection, whether it’s how to make a wing more aerodynamic or a city more resilient or an electronic display more vibrant. More than a decade ago, an MIT grad named Mark Miles was dabbling in the field of micro-electromechanical and materials processing. As he paged through a science magazine, he was stopped by an article on how butterflies generate color in their wings. The brilliant iridescent blue of the various Morpho species, for example, comes not from pigment, but from “structural color.” Those wings harbor a nanoscale assemblage of shingled plates, whose shape and distance from one another are arranged in a precise pattern that disrupts reflective light wavelengths to produce the brilliant blue. To create that same blue out of pigment would require much more energy—energy better used for flying, feeding and reproducing.