Chapter 10: Crossroads


Dear GermiNature readers,

This is the second to last (if not the last) blog post that I’ll write on GermiNature; therefore, I would like to take the time to reflect on what I have accomplished and gained in the past five years. Continue reading


A Meadow of Inspiration

“Plants are amazing!” This is something I hear a lot from non-botanists. Of course, I know plants are awesome, but every time I turn around, I learn something new and exciting. This semester was no exception. Tasked with a project in my Biomimetic Design class, led by Dr. Petra Gruber, I walked into the meadow to find inspiration– literally.

On a very wet, cold, rainy day in October, I walked to a meadow within our field station property (Bath Nature Preserve, Bath Twp., Akron, Ohio) and found a section to investigate. Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) towering over my head, I decided to stop at 20 steps and set up a 1m x 1m plot to sample. October in a meadow doesn’t give you very much to identify, but goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and Indian grass (S. nutans) were plentiful among a few baby asters, Galium spp. (aka ‘Cleavers’ or ‘Bedstraw’), wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana),clumps of unidentifiable grass and moss. I measured heights of stems and area covered,  took the percent coverage to determine how much each species covered the plot,and took several picture views for record. After returning to campus, I created a hand-drawn schematic of the plot.


Hand-drawn schematic of 1m x 1m meadow plot in Bath Nature Preserve. Oct. 2016

A few weeks later, I returned to the same plot. Apparently my methods of counting and direction are spot-on because my last step landed on a pen I had dropped on that rainy day a few weeks earlier! If you’ve ever done field work, you understand how amazing it is that I found a PEN in the middle of a meadow over 2 meters high! This time I was there to measure the ability of the meadow to hold a load. I admit, I didn’t think the stems would hold up… being so late in the year and being dried out. As usual, though, plants are amazing and surprised me yet again!

I decided to test the load by creating a 1m x 1m foam board that was sturdy, yet lightweight. I placed the board directly over the plot, placing flags on each corner. The flags allowed for a visual cue to observe movement of bot


My husband and daughter gave me a hand in the field at Bath Nature Preserve. Three books really impacted the system. Notice how far the stems are bending, yet still not breaking! Amazing.

h plants and the board, as well as giving a reference point at which to measure the height of the board after each addition of weight. After the foam board was placed on top of the plants, I measured the height at each corner (flag) for the “initial” height. I added one heavy book and measured the height at each corner. Subsequently, I added increasing weight and measured the heights. At 3 books (6.7kg), the system (the meadow plot) could no longer hold the weight. Because this was the same plants were used over the entire experiment, I believe more weight can be held by the plants in true form.


So how does this happen? Plants are amazing. IMeadow roots.pngn the meadow, plants grow up to 10 feet below ground (roots) and above ground. You can imagine how secure this makes these cantilever beams! Here, the Indian grass and Goldenrod grew 1.5m to 2.5m above ground. The stems reached diameters of 2-5mm. You may wonder how the stems did not break when the weight was added. Galileo was the first to record these observations, noting that bending is resisted in the outer layers, not the inner stem as some might think. Several studies have investigated this design, including F.O. Bower (1930) who compared plant stems to concrete, saying, “Ordinary herbaceous plants are constructed on the same principle. The sclerotic strands correspond to the metal straps, the surroundin


g parenchyma with its turgescent cells corresponds mechanically to the concrete.” Equisetum (Horsetail) is another champion plant for many reasons, but here, in this context, it’s a biomechanic superstar.  “The hollow stem of Equisetum giganteum owes its mechanical stability to an outer ring of strengthening tissue, which provides stiffness and strength in the longitudinal direction, but also to an inner lining of turgid parenchyma, which lends resistance to local buckling. With a height >2.5 m isolated stems are mechanically unstable. However, in dense stands individual stems support each other by interlacing with their side branches, the typical growth habit of semi-self-supporters.” (Spatz, Kohler, Speck 1998). Again, plants are amazing.


After doing some mathematical calculations (very much estimated


The Lone Bloomer. The best-looking Goldenrod in the whole place puts out a flower for us!

in this case because of the imprecise nature of this ‘experiment’), it is expected that a single Goldenrod stem can support >118% of its biomass! Now, we’re not talking about the strength of steel or lead, but we can see that plants offer us new possibilities when we are designing or constructing new things! Imagine a support feature that is hollow inside and allows for storage in the “stem” as well has having the strength to support weight. Think on a smaller scale: imagine a space in which a stiff, lightweight outer covering is needed to secure something. Imagine the many possibilities that plants offer us to grow using Life’s Principles.




Graphical representation of the meadow plot using InDesign. I’m still learning how to use this new software and have also created a “worm’s eye view” to show a different perspective. Yellow stems are the goldenrod, the purple and lavender stems are Indian grass (single stems and clumps).

Human Swarm

This blog is based on this paper: “Crowds vs Swarms, a Comparison of Intelligence” by Louis Rosenberg, David Baltaxe, and Niccolo Pescetelli.

Recently, I went for a conference organized by Daniel Palmer and Marc Kirschenbaum of John Carroll University on Blended Intelligence. I thought it appropriate to talk about one of the talks. How do we get intelligence from a crowd of people, surveys, interviews? How does nature get intelligence from its beings? Authors claim nature does not aggregate independent samples but works on a closed real-time loop with continuous feedback. Hence, can we have a human swarm similar to a flock of birds or a school of fish and does it result in better intelligence? That is exactly what the authors put to test with their software UNU. UNU works by having a group of knowledgable individuals about a specific topic to come together virtually and decided on an answer for a given question. Each user has a magnet which he/she can use to pull the puck toward their desired answer.

What of the results? Check this article on how it predicted the Kentucky Derby, or read their paper on its prediction for the 2016 Super Bowl; a human swarm of 20 people outperformed (68% correctly) a crowd of 469 football fans (47% correctly). If this doesn’t impress you, well the swarm outperformed 98% of independent individuals in the study. Now, could this be a reason to pool our intelligence in order to tackle more challenging questions facing us in the future? Could this help in finding solutions to climate change that is affecting us more every day.

Do you want to try it? All you need is to sign up, verify your email, and you’ll be in your way to create you first UNU human swarm, or you can just enter one of their open UNUs. Finally check out their tutorial:


TEDxSalonUniversityofAkron Talk

Hello Readers!

For my post, I wanted to share some exciting news! Last April I had the amazing opportunity to do a TEDx talk on Biomimicry at the Akron Art Museum. It was a nerve-wracking, but incredible experience. I even had the honor of designing the theme ‘De(SCI)gn’ logo! It took quite a long while for the video to be edited and uploaded, but here it is! Enjoy, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Putting the ‘Ph’ in PhD

To earn a PhD, a student must make an original contribution to his or her field of study. The novelty requirement can channel the student into a highly specialized research area. Whether measuring propulsion pressures produced when penguins poop or the effect of cocaine on honey bee dance behavior, to borrow some EXTREME examples, it’s important to periodically climb out of the rabbit hole and pause for philosophical reflection. For students specializing in biomimicry, this means asking:

  • What does a world built through biomimetic innovation look like?
  • Does the biomimicry community have a shared vision for the future?
  • If so, what mode of inquiry will help us achieve that shared vision?

We are pioneers in this field, and as such, have a responsibility to contribute to its philosophical development.

I recently made a modest contribution to the philosophical development of biomimicry via a publication in Global Built Environment Review. The article, titled “Biomimetic Buildings: The Emerging Future of Architecture,” is open access. You can download it here.  In the article, I try to develop coherent responses to common criticisms of biomimicry, which stem from philosophical misunderstandings. See abstract below.

Biomimicry is sustainable innovation inspired by Earth’s diverse life forms which, thanks to billions of years of evolutionary refinement, embody high-performance, resource-efficient design solutions. Dismissing large potential ecological and economic returns associated with biomimicry, critics argue the approach 1) diminishes the role of the human designer; 2) relies on suboptimal models due to evolutionary incrementalism; 3) demands humans repress their impulse to build; and 4) depletes architecture of human meaning. The purpose of this article is to defend the merits of biomimicry by revealing how poorly founded these assertions are. Each is based on an outdated paradigm that we must shed in order to nurture a new era of architecture.

Let me know what you think of the article in the comment section!

GoatMan Quarterly – Special Issue

This year’s Biology Ig Nobel Prize goes to an interesting human being who wanted to take a break living as a human and instead live as a goat. In a very literal interpretation of bio-inspiration, Tom Thwaites zoomorphed into a goat with the assistance of custom-made goat prosthetics, which included hooves and a chest-attached rumen, to live amongst a herd of goats in the Alps for three days. His motivation was to simply shun modern living and appreciate living in the very moment – an often-elusive trait in the today’s world.


You most likely won’t see this type of research coming out of Akron unless Bill decides to weave a giant web and live like a spider, but that would most likely freak people out more than a human-goat. If anything, we certainly have a great appreciation for bio-inspired improbable research.


To read more, see Tom Thwaites website, BBC News, or for a more in-depth look at living like a goat, you can purchase the book: GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human.


Biomimicry Projects at ESA

For several years the European Space Agency (ESA) has been working on biomimicry projects for space applications. Everyone interested in space-related science and biomimicry should take a look at the project website of the ESA’s Advanced Concept Team. Here I will try to summarize some of the projects that, in my opinion, are the most interesting ones to mention. For more projects and details take a look at the official website of ESA.


Due to long travel times in space, closed-cycle life support systems are required that could be optimized by lowering the astronaut’s energy consumption. The researchers at ESA are therefore trying to learn more about hibernation in animals to see whether these principles can eventually be applied to astronauts on long term space missions in order to lower their consumption of air, water and food. Hibernating animals such as hedgehogs or the arctic ground squirrel are very interesting models to learn more about the mechanisms of hibernation in nature. For instance, the arctic ground squirrel is able to set its body temperature to 32° F (freezing point) during winter. Scientists are still not sure how the arctic ground squirrel can hibernate at such low temperatures but they believe that the so-called A1 adenosine receptor plays an important role in this. For more details take a look at this recently published article in the Washington Post.

Jumping spider vision:

Some jumping spiders are known to have the best vision among invertebrates. This vision aids them during hunting expeditions when the distance of the prey has to be estimated accurately. Therefore, jumping spiders only use one lens with several photoreceptor layers. Light can only be focused on one of the two deepest layers. When light is focused on one of the two deepest layers the image appears blurry on the other layer. It is expected that the amount of blurriness on the one receptor layer is used for depth estimation. A closer look at this blur-to-distance mapping mechanism could inspire depth-from-defocus (DFD) computer vision algorithms useful for distance sensors used in autonomous spacecraft descent, for example. Other application fields could be optical sensors for formation flying and swarm behavior. Such a system could also be used to assist other existing technologies such as SONAR. Since only one lens plus sensors would be required it is expected that such a system would be very energy efficient and last a long time since no mechanical parts are involved in the design.

Tracking of perceptual saliency:

In space robots usually take large amounts of images that have to be sent to ground stations for analysis. The large distance between the robot and the unit analyzing the collected images causes transmission delays. Thus, a real-time analysis is not possible. Also, the storage of large amounts of high definition images might cause data storage problems. Therefore, it would be helpful if the robot itself could evaluate the scientific content of an image taken. Algorithms have to be developed that let the robot identify interesting features in images. Therefore, the robot could be trained using human gaze data collected though an eye tracker. This would allow the robot to learn to take a look at surroundings as if through a human eye.

Further ongoing projects as well as interesting past projects are summarized on the official website of the ESA’s Advanced Concepts Team.

An ecologist’s critique of two concepts of biomimicry

Vincent Blok and Bart Gremmen published an article in the January 2016 Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics titled “Ecological Innovation: Biomimicry as a New Way of Thinking and Acting Ecologically”.  In the article, Blok and Gremmen distinguish and reflect on two concepts of biomimicry. The authors identify a strong, but simplistic, concept of biomimicry that eschews the industrial revolution’s characteristics of domination and exploitation of nature in favor of learning and exploration. Janine Benyus’s philosophy of a second biomimetic industrial revolution and McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle design are examples of this strong concept of biomimicry.  The authors sum up the strong concept as nature is seen as an engineer that has 3.8 billion years of research and development experience and biomimicry is imitation of nature’s models to solve human problems. The weaker and more sophisticated model was developed by Joanna Aizenberg and does not consist of duplication of natural systems, but as inspiration from nature to abstract function, structure, and processes for creative solutions.

The authors critique the strong concept of biomimicry driven by Benyus’ philosophy by identifying three problematic presuppositions.  Their first point is that the strong concept has a strict distinction between copying natural principles and invention.  The authors take an Aristotelian perspective and claim that mimesis includes perfecting what nature is not capable of producing itself.   The authors also critique that natural systems are not fully accessible and understood and limit our capability to copy nature’s models to solve technological problems.  The last presupposition is that nature is complex and temperamental and humans translate and interpret natural phenomena as the standard for ecological health to explore application to technological problems.  Since the resulting technology has been filtered through human understanding, the authors question if the resulting technology is truly ethically right.  The authors feel that the weaker concept of biomimicry is less problematic but does not distinguish between exploitive and dominating technology verses explorative and ecologically ethical technology.

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