- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006

Physicist Richard Feynman famously declared in a 1959 speech to the American Physical Society, “There’s plenty of room at the bottom.”

He meant that there is a world around us too small to be seen with the naked eye: the nanorealm, made up of objects between one billionth and one millionth of a meter in size. Tiny, yes, but Mr. Feynman predicted that there was enough room for scientists to do important work. The entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, he predicted, would one day be stored on the head of a pin.

Mr. Feynman’s 1959 speech sparked the serious study of nanostructures. Six years later, scientists glimpsed the nanoworld for the first time with the invention of the scanning electron microscope. Since then, further scientific innovations have helped make Mr. Feynman’s prediction — that the most exciting scientific frontiers will be tiny — appear prophetic. The future, it appears, is now.

Peter Forbes’ “The Gecko’s Foot” explores bio-inspiration, an emerging field in the study of nanostructures that “seeks to use nature’s principles to create things that evolution never achieved.”

The author explains how scientists study lotus plants, spider silk, geckos’ feet and butterfly wings in nanodetail to help them engineer everything from self-cleaning paint to adhesive tape to military camoflauge. Comprehensive and surprisingly readable, “The Gecko’s Foot” offers a fascinating account of a new frontier.

The book begins with an overview of bio-inspiration, which has emerged in the last 15 years. Mr. Forbes defines it broadly, noting that scientists can learn from natural structures of all sizes and put their knowledge to use in a number of ways. Scientists in the field of bio-inspiration ask questions such as: Why do lotus leaves always look clean? How do insects fly? How do geckos walk on the ceiling? The answers to these questions can often be found by studying nature at the nanolevel, where the distinction between nature and human technology is often blurred.

“Nature and technology have been seen as polar opposites by many, with nature as a comforting balm for gritty hard-edged city technology,” Mr. Forbes writes. “But nature at the nanolevel looks like … well, contemporary high technology and architecture!”

Although scientists are currently studying nature at the nanolevel, Mr. Forbes notes that bio-inspiration is not synonymous with nanotechnoogy, which does not have to involve nature at all.

The author also notes that while scientists in the field of bio-inspiration want to learn from living creatures, using nature’s principles to produce technical devices, they aren’t out to engineer life. “Whatever else it means, bio-inspiration does not mean the imitation of life in the sense of creating it,” he writes.

The book’s eight central chapters are broken down roughly by aspects of nature scientists are researching and their applications, from how to make fibers as strong as spider silk to how natural principles can be incorporated into architecture. The gecko referenced in the book’s title appears in a chapter about engineering adhesives, and its story is representative of the innovations discussed in the book.

Geckos have long mystified people for their ability to run up and down vertical walls and dash across ceilings. As it turns out, the secret to the lizards’ gravity-defying power is in the pads of their feet. Using high-powered microcopes, researchers have discovered that on the pad of each foot geckos have almost 500,000 tiny bristles, which split at the ends into mini-bristles. These mini-bristles come into such close contact with a surface that an attraction develops between the two, helping geckos stick.

Only a fraction of a gecko’s bristles make contact with a surface at a time, but researchers have suggested that if they all did, the force would be strong enough to suspend a man weighing about 265 pounds from the ceiling. Scientists are now using knowledge about geckos’ feet to develop “gecko tape” that could be used, for example, in microsurgery.

The stories of such innovations abound in Mr. Forbes’ book. But even more interesting are the author’s explanations of the process by which scientific discoveries are used to develop products for people. In telling his tales of technological innovation, Mr. Forbes resists the temptation to make progress sound preordained. He includes in his account stories of research that dead-ends, rivalries between scientists and technological limitations. By writing about scientific research in all its complexity, he makes one appreciate more fully the discoveries scientists make.

Mr. Forbes, a trained chemist who has written articles on bio-inspiration for the Guardian, thankfully doesn’t rely on dense, scientific prose. His writing is remarkably clear and scientific concepts are usually explained well enough for laypeople to understand, with some effort. While some of his writing, particularly on subjects like protein synthesis, gets a bit complex, he defines most jargon and illustrates concepts with graphics when possible. (The graphics could be better labeled, however.)

Perhaps the reason Mr. Forbes writes so well is that, in addition to being a scientist, he is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London, the editor of poetry anthologies and, formerly, the editor of “Poetry Review,” Britain’s premier poetry magazine. The author’s love of poetry is reflected in literary references throughout his book, including this quote from the poem “Greatness in Little” by 17th-century English poet Richard Leigh:

Ah, happy littleness! That art thus blest, / That greatest glories aspire to seem least. / Even those installed in a higher sphere, / The higher they are raised, the less appear…

Bio-inspiration, Mr. Forbes writes, has uncovered nature’s hidden poetry, although he cautions that progress in the field will come more slowly than most predict. “That we have learnt so much about this nanorealm of nature does not mean that we shall soon know it all,” he concludes.

After all, as Mr. Feynman first observed and Mr. Forbes’ delightful, complex book demonstrates, there is still plenty of room at the bottom.

Anne Malinee, a Vanderbilt University student, is a summer intern at The Washington Times.

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