Today, we try to copy mother nature. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
People often ask me if
invention copies nature. The answer's a surprise.
We seldom manage to copy nature. She's too complex.
Her secrets are too deeply buried. Our forbears
were once in closer touch with organic nature. They
knew the herbs of the forest and, without
chemistry, they extracted medicines and processed
chemicals from them. They used nature. But they
made no attempt to copy her.
They might make ink from acacia tree gum, then
extract coloring for it from the parasitic galls of
an oak tree. Linseed oil, flaxen cloth or waxes --
tanning, smelting, or adding color to stained
glass. It all reflected an intimacy with the tastes
and smells of the forest. We used nature. We didn't
try to copy her.
As we synthesize cloth, paper, medicine, and oils,
each step leads us further from the product nature
provided. Now we process natural oils into
plastics, minerals into glass, and organic fibers
and chemicals into paper. In the very simplicity of
our processes, we overlook nature's exquisite
That's especially clear when we try to copy animal
functions. Two-legged, or bipedal, motion poses
insurmountable feedback control problems, so we
simplify it. We separate propulsion from
locomotion. We fit wheels on an ox- or
engine-driven vehicle. Only in the last 20 years
have we managed to make crude six-legged walking
machines. Artificial bipedal motion is still beyond
We did the same thing when we learned to fly. We
couldn't combine lift with propulsion in a flapping
wing. So we gave up, froze the wing in place, and
drove the plane forward with a propeller. It was a
crude solution for a hopelessly complex problem.
To invent the computer, we first had to despair of
imitating the human brain. Now we very gradually
try to endow our computers with the abilities that
seem to lie within our own brains -- neural
networks, parallel processing, and fuzzy logic.
When we discover a new drug or glandular secretion,
we first try to synthesize it. Then we introduce it
orally or intravenously -- not the way our own body
would. Doctors and psychiatrists do repeated
damage, along with much good, as they try to
replicate the body's means for defending against
disease and psychosis.
Another time, we'll talk about our attempts to copy
the spider's web. Spider web strands have enormous
strength and an array of qualities that we find in
no manufactured material.
Technology's central task is expanding our reach --
letting us travel faster and farther, heating and
cooling us, extending our minds and our capacity
for self-repair -- pleasing our senses. And it
always comes back to replicating what nature does
more efficiently, and with layers of complexity
that continue to baffle us.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds