Ideas on Unifying Science

Uniting the sciences is not that trivial.

I’d argue physics has done a lot in terms of breaking down the barriers between the sciences. Each science has their own physics—certain equations of phenomenon that work for their own field.

So in a sense, I can imagine physics as the center of the sciences. Only because physics brings both numbers and theory (math only brings the numbers), and it’s the theory that makes it all make sense.

To give some context, consider all of the physics off-shoots of our central fields: physical chemistry, biomechanics, biophysics, geophysics, etc. Not to mention physics’ attempt at a theory of everything—which is really just a theory of the small (which if correct is technically everything).

But I’m not convinced physics is the best intersection.

I see the problem though stemming from the way we convey physics (not that it isn’t a great choice for an intersection of the sciences). We teach it as separate things, each phenomenon has its own set of equations and rules, though they can be derived from some starting principles (newton, thermodynamics). Ultimately, by building it up as separate ideas, with clearly different models, the unity is lost: how can they work together?

This brings me finally to Biomimicry.

Biology isn’t just a good resource for solutions, it also creates great examples of the separate concepts can work together.

Biology is the application of physics. There are too many organisms that utilize the many types of physics to accomplish a goal. In a sense I would bet that anything we teach in class could be found in an organism.

The point of this is to unify the sciences not through a theory of everything, but rather a unified subject of study. Such that when we learn about physics/chemistry/engineering/mechanics it’s in the context of biology.

Unification through a common application rather than a common equation.

I think this would be a good foundation for someone who is considering an interdisciplinary path; where things are seldom purely one thing.

Biomimicry in Fab Education

Cleveland-based company Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM (TIES http://www.tiesteach.org/) is one of my sponsors for the University of Akron’s Biomimicry Fellowship Program. TIES is focusing on Fab Lab education, outreach and implementation for 2016. Fab lab was conceptualized at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 1990s and is the educational outreach component of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. Fab labs are part of a global network and are a technical platform for learning, innovation and invention. In order to be a fab lab, certain qualifications must be met including a common set of tools and processes, minimum machine and materials requirements, and public access to the space.

My first project as an education fellow is to introduce biomimicry into the fab lab at MC2 STEM High School in Cleveland, Ohio. Launched in 2009, MC2 was the first public school to house a fab lab in the United States. MC2’s regular public access on January 30th will be the debut of the Biomimicry Fab Lab for which fellow University of Akron student Banafsheh Khakipoor and I created fab lab content. Biomimicry student Ariana Rupp assisted with machinery and project capabilities.

senai-fablab-in the CTS Automation and Simulation-Rio  SENAI FABLAB Rio de Janeiro, Brazil https://www.fablabs.io/senaifablab

Continue reading

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Bioremediation

We’ve done much damage to our planet. We’ve cut down trees. We’ve used pesticide and fertilizer chemicals on our soil and plants. The good news is this: the planet was designed to heal itself. To first begin, we need to help. I believe we can use bioremediation to fix some of the environmental problems we have created and as a preventative mediation for future issues.

Cornell University describes bioremediation as the act of using biological organisms to solve environmental problems (http://ei.cornell.edu/biodeg/bioremed/ ). These organisms run the gamut of species. We’re talking about bacteria, fungi, protists, plants, animals, fish, etc. By placing the right organisms in the right conditions, each and every thing benefits. For example, legumes tolerate a high nitrogen environment as nitrogen fixers. Other plants cannot survive in soils with high nitrogen and will ‘burn’ (shrivel and die), not produce fruits, or turn yellow and drop their leaves. Minerals, moisture, acidity, consistency, and type of soil are some of the variations of conditions that plants require for survival. We can use these needs to solve environmental problems.

So what research has been done? Some of our very own researchers here at The University of Akron discovered some of the ways in which bioremediation can clean up the messes we’ve made. Dr. Teresa Cutright has made some significant discoveries of the ways plants can be used to clean up the water and soil of abandoned mined areas. Acid mine drainage (AMD) is known to contain elements such as excessive aluminum, manganese, magnesium, iron, and other toxic metalloids (Cutright, et al. 2012). While studying an area with AMD, the researchers noticed certain plants succeeding: Phragmites australis, Typha latifolia, Solidago spp., and Glycine max. In this region, Phragmites australis is a known invasive spamdecies, so it is no surprise that it was the dominant plant, interspersed with smaller patches of goldenrod, cattails, and soybeans.

Plant biomass (roots, stems, leaves, and flowers), soil, and water samples from each site were collected, prepared, and assessed. For plants to be considered accumulators*, they must have a translocation factor*** greater than one. While some of the plants are more efficient than others at storing particular contaminants, all four of the studied plants are accumulators of aluminum and magnesium. Manganese is accumulated by Phragmites, cattail and goldenrod. Iron is accumulated by Phragmites and goldenrod. Interestingly, Phragmites australis and Typha latifolia at this site reached hyperaccumulator* levels for absorption of aluminum in the shoots**.

*Accumulator < Hyperaccumulator sequestration levels in biomass.
**Shoots are defined as leaves, stems, and flower parts; void of roots
*** The translocation factor is the concentration of the metal in the shoots divided by the concentration of the metal in the roots.

 

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From Dr. T.J. Cutright, 2012

Bioremediation is an important and relevant tool to solving nature’s problems using nature. This strategy is known as a form of biomimicry. The previously described study demonstrates one way in which plants can be utilized: to accumulate the metallic contaminants of acid mine drainage. However, with all solutions, contraindications must also be assessed. One such contraindication is the labeling of Phragmites australis as an invasive species (in Northeast Ohio, et al.). Once planted as an ornamental reed for landscaping, it has taken over many roadsides, wetlands, and other areas. Many park districts have it on their lists of species to eradicate. However, recent ecologists have noticed that the common reed is growing in areas where other species cannot survive. Roadsides in northeast Ohio are laden with ice-melting road salt and other toxic run-off. The decision to consider an invasive species to repair damaged areas is being heavily weighed to assess the benefits and tribulations.

 

There has been mention of what happens when the plants die. Are these metals just being stored temporarily, giving the appearance of an improvement to the soil only for a short time period? While this is debated currently, I would suggest that this is not always the case. For example, some plants “fix” compounds. A legume converts “bad” nitrogen (N2) into a more organic, usable form (NH3). Some metals are used for photosynthesis, such as iron and magnesium and are commonly found inside plants like Phragmites australis. A perineal plant, it will constantly reseed itself, allowing the metal cycling to be a continual process. Another thought is that the plants could be harvested and moved to areas with low concentrations. The decomposition would put the needed nutrients back into the anemic soil.

I would like to leave with the thought of using bioremediation as a preventative measure. Particularly considering fracked areas and the land that will host the Nexus Pipeline. I do not believe that public opinion will be swayed away from oil to more earth-friendly “fuels.” Even if enforcements are placed, it may be some time before changes are made. During this time, why not consider putting plants and/or bacteria that are specific for combating possible contaminants in these areas? Let’s focus some research on which organisms can successfully combat a wastewater spill, an oil spill, a gas leak, etc. Place these organisms preventatively so no time is lost. Likely it isn’t the end solution, but it is at least a start!

Cutright, Teresa J., Senko, John, Sivaram, Sushil, and York, Matt. 2012. Evaluation of phytoextraction potential at an acid-mine-drainage-impacted site. Soil and Sediment Contamination. 21: 970-984.

Marketing Exploitation: Biomimicry-washing? Bio-washing? Nature-washing?

With the rise of environmentally friendly, sustainable, and organic movements, so has risen the marketing exploitation of these ideas. PR tactics such as greenwashing, where a company appears to publically promote environmentally sustainable ideas without making any meaningful internal changes, run rampant. People have a tendency to believe that things labelled “green”, “organic”, and “natural” are better for them and, as a bonus, can feel superior that they are helping save the planet.

According to the Da Vinci index, by the year 2030, bioinspiration could globally create $1.6 trillion in GDP. As appreciation for the economic potential of biomimicry grows, it is inevitable that some will take advantage of this, and will begin to put a biomimicry spin on their products and systems-a pretty facade to capitalize on a popular trend. Continue reading

Biomimicry Within Digital Arts and Technology

Biomimicry is a tool/discipline that can be used in many fields ranging from industrial design, architecture, engineering, math, and even computer science. Being from a graphic design background and practicing digital painting, I find myself struggling to find exactly where biomimicry fits within the digital aesthetics realm. Can a designer/artist practice digital arts in a biomimetic way, or are the digital arts just a good tool to perform and carry out biomimetic thinking within a digital space? Surely when you are 3D modeling a biomimetic building or product on your computer, you are aiding in the biomimetic design process, but the 3D modeling process itself isn’t the thing that is biomimetic, is it? Biomimicry, in root words terms, is the act of mimicking life. How literally should we take this? Is virtual reality a sort of biomimicry because it does just that; mimics life? Maybe it’s just a useful tool to aid in the design process. These are some of the things I hope to figure out in my studies, but I’m finding as I dig deeper that when approaching biomimicry with a digital aesthetics lens, that it’s not just about the design process and appearance, but also about how using digital tools can help learn or experience something in the natural world. It is possible that, like art, digital aesthetics is particularly useful to inspire, evoke emotions, and increase understanding using the natural world as a muse.

In her article, “Saraceno: Conversations on Biomimicry”, Anya Ventura takes quotes from people at MIT about how art can play an important role in the biomimetic process. One of these people is Sony Corporation Career Development Professor and Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab, Neri Oxman. Oxman’s research is one that that combines generative design, digital fabrication, materials science, and synthetic biology. Her works aim to take design principles and behavior of the natural world and find a translation to be applied in artificial design using new digital and material technologies such as 3D modeling and printing.

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Neri Oxman, Fibonacci’s Mashrabiya (2009)

CNC milled zcrylic, Museum of Science, Boston 

In her work, Fibonacci’s Mashrabiya, Oxman combines the fractal Fibonacci patterns found in nature with the lattice designs found within the windows and screen walls of Mashrabiya Arabic architecture. Designs are then digitally generated and constructed, and the result is a screen that produces a vortex of light and air formed by the spiraling arrangement of openings in the surface. The environmental effects can be manipulated by changing the orientation and size of the apertures.

This structure created by Oxman is a good example of reimagining an existing artistic style using nature as inspiration in order to create a different outcome, and may represent a way in which biomimicry can exist within digital aesthetics through not only surface similarity, but also within the process itself using generative design.

For another example of bio-inspired generative design, I recommend checking out Günter Seyfried’s Mutants from Innerspace, in which Seyfried uses software to translate the computer code of a GIF into a synthesized DNA strand, which is then exposed to different environmental stresses, and then encoded back into a GIF showing a visual representation of the mutations that occurred. Certainly an interesting read that shows how today’s technology can help bridge the arts and sciences.

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Günter Seyfried, Clemens Grabher, Daniel Feurle,  Mutants from Innerspace (2008)

 

From biomimicry to biosynergy

The Glowing Plant project, genetically engineered plants endowed with firefly bioluminescence

Addressing CRISPR and other genomic design techniques in class has made me wonder about the future of bioscience integration. Continue reading

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Abstracting and Adapting

Hello Readers,

Thank you for continuing to follow us, the biomimicry fellows, as we continue to probe the depths of nature’s solution manual in search of sustainability. I find it a little ironic that I had the privilege to kick off the school year and now I will be closing out the first semester for the new biomimicry fellows. Over the last fifteen weeks we have been endeavoring to discover more about this thing we call biomimicry. I’d like to take a second to share a few of my thoughts that have been shaped this semester. Continue reading

Natural Communicator

Being involved with the development of this first-of-its-kind Biomimicry PhD program and having co-founded two startups, I’ve experienced how challenging communication can be in these fast-paced, quickly evolving environments. Luckily we can learn a lot from the world around us! Although not many other organisms use “verbal” communication like we do, they have developed very intricate and successful strategies to collaborate and co-exist. Continue reading

Living and Responsive Systems

Traffic on my way back from Thanksgiving break gave me a block of time to think about biomimicry. In particular, I had time to think about the boring situation in which I had found myself. Car accidents in the rain had caused all of the other cars to stop as emergency services responded. What was interesting is how a setback in the flow of traffic caused delays which lengthened my trip time by quite a few hours. The traffic was not very responsive to difficulties. When I arrived home, my heater was not working. Therefore, I had to go to the closet and grab a few extra blankets so I could sleep without freezing. I was able to respond to a challenge with a manageable enough solution. Continue reading

Finding thanks in a time of turmoil

I feel like this point in time is difficult to write, think about, and process things thoroughly. My mind is at the nexus of 3 huge events that are converging within the same 2-week timeframe. The impending Thanksgiving where I won’t have to worry about food or a roof over my head (but would welcome refugees that had nothing with open arms at our table if they came), the horrible Paris attacks, and the upcoming COP21 Global Climate Talks – in Paris – where the fate of our climate largely rests in coming up with a solid deal.   Have you ever just stopped and thought to yourself lately: Damn – this is a critical point in history!?   Because it is! Continue reading