Less than two weeks ago, a new book in Taiwan caught my attention. Actually, it’s a traditional Chinese translation of a book published in the US last year. The English title is “The Shark’s Paintbrush: Biomimicry and How Nature is Inspiring Innovation”.
When I saw the translated book title: “大黃蜂飛得比波音747還快？：仿生科技-來自大自然的下一波工業革命”, I didn’t realize that it was actually a translated version of “The Shark’s Paintbrush” until I saw the English title in fine print on the cover. That’s because if I were to translate the Chinese title back to English, it would read “Does Bumblebee Fly Faster Than Boeing 747?: Biomimetic Technology – The Next Wave of Industrial Revolution Coming From Nature”. This is just a showcase of how difficult it is to transmit ideas across language boundaries. (As a TED Volunteer Translator and Language Coordinator, trust me, I know.)
With that being said, I’m amazed by how fast this book has been translated into traditional Chinese. Only Taiwan and Hong Kong are still using traditional Chinese as a main form of written communication (mainland China mostly uses Simplified Chinese, same as in Singapore and Malaysia). That roughly converts to a market of 30 million people – not a particularly big market. Because so few people still use traditional Chinese as a main form of written communication, traditional Chinese publishers are very selective about which books they translate and publish. They prioritize translation of the most impactful texts. The fact that “The Shark’s Paintbrush” got translated and published in about six months time tells me one thing: biomimicry is getting major traction and momentum moving forward around the world. More and more people are being made aware of biomimicry, even in Taiwan and Hong Kong!
In my personal opinion, if you’re interested in biomimicry, this book is a “must read.” I know that Kelly is going to post more about the content of this book in the near future, so I’m not going to do that today. Instead, I’m going to talk about one particular idea that the author of this book, Jay Harman, and his company, PAX Scientific (hereafter, PAX), use a lot – that is, “nature moves in spiral.” Below is a collection of my thoughts and summary of discussions that I’ve had about this topic over the past few years. I don’t have answers to the questions that I ask, so comments and discussions about this blog post are very welcome!
1. Are the rotors from PAX modeled after whirlpool “biomimetic”?
Some say that because the word “biomimicry” uses the root “bio,” which means “life,” that modeling a non-living system can’t be “biomimicry”. If PAX Scientific’s spiral rotor was inspired by spiral galaxies, storm systems, or whirlpools, then it was modeled after non-living systems. They are physical phenomena that only involve physics, hence they can’t be “biomimicry”. The distinguisher is that living systems evolve whereas non-living systems don’t. However, some use “nature inspired …” as an alternative expression for “biomimicry”. Since the laws of physics determine the rules/operating conditions of nature, natural evolution is governed by physics. Living systems evolve towards “physical” perfection. In this line of thought, isn’t modeling the physics of non-living systems in nature a part of “biomimicry”?
2. Does nature really move in spiral/curvature?
I think this question is purely dependent on your perspective, and your scale of observation. We know that theoretically speaking we can treat a circle as infinite, short, straight segments. A line in the film Prometheus (2012) says “God does not build in straight lines.” Some people disagree, but this idea resonates with me on a philosophical and experiential level. I believe it is fairly correct to say that nature moves in spiral. I don’t think the people voicing their disagreement in the link above do a good job of presenting examples of straight lines in nature. (Can anyone give me some other examples?) Firstly, a chemical bond isn’t “straight,” we just use straight lines to represent chemical bonds for our own convenience. For example, a long carbon chain is never straight, it is zig-zagging. On the other hand, it is relatively easy to find examples of things in nature that spin or move in spirals. Electrons spin; bullets spin and move in curvature; golf balls need to be spun to go further; the Taichi (yin and yang) symbol in Chinese culture incorporates no straight lines. Taichi symbol is thought to represent how nature works in Chinese society. Taijiquan (Chinese martial art) and Aikido (Japanese martial art), which follow the same philosophy and have circular movements, are considered very efficient and effective martial art styles. Even in Shaolin, do you think they’re punching in a straight line? Look closer, they actually turn their fists when punching….forming a spiral through space and time. In Qigong, it is taught that rotating and spinning the acupoints cultivates the energy. (Nobody really knows why, but I believe it is not merely a coincidence. Qigong originates from Taoism and follows nature’s way. It is the core value of Taoism.) With that said, do you believe “nature moves in spiral” or “God does not build in straight lines”? If not? Why? I would like to hear your thoughts, too!!