The Gecko's Foot, by Peter Forbes

Lizard glue and lotus paint - science takes walk on the wild side

By Hugh Aldersey-Williams
Friday 19 July 2013 03:59

The departure point for a discussion of new adhesives, for instance, is the gecko that can hang from a glass ceiling by one foot. Forbes accentuates the poetry of his raw materials - the half-million bristles on the gecko's foot, nano-sized mirrored Gothic crypts within butterflies' wings that account for their iridescence, the "Venus flower basket" that uses fibre optics to gather light. An animal essentially made of glass, it's emblematic of the uncharted terrain opening up between natural history and materials engineering.

The story of how the lotus leaf inspired self-cleaning paint (both have hairs that allow water to form globules that carry off dirt) is improved by quotations from Buddhist texts. Forbes is confident enough to confess his own "lotus epiphany" as well as, in a chapter on spider silk, his arachnophobia. Each chapter includes a table-top experiment, the boldest involving strapping down a spider and spooling off the silk.

Forbes is sometimes a shade general and sometimes a parallel he draws may not be quite valid, but the gains are greater than the losses. The Gecko's Foot is an act of two-cultures healing. One page quotes Miroslav Holub, "immunologist and poet", the next Vladimir Nabokov, "Russian novelist and serious amateur lepidopterist". Forbes gives a sense of scientists not as laboratory drudges but as a band of wide-eyed innocents alert to all in nature and the arts. And by apposite quotations, he makes a good case for the quality of poetic alongside scientific observation.

Forbes prefers the term "bio-inspiration" to "biomimetics". The aim is not slavishly to imitate nature, but to learn from it to develop our own solutions to engineering problems. And he is surely right to pounce now, before inspiration turns to perspiration.

"Rather than wait until some of these technologies have become commonplace," he explains, "I have tried to capture the Wordsworthian 'bliss-it-was-in-that-dawn-to-be-alive' moment of seeing what was, until 15 years ago, a wholly unexpected science taking shape". He has succeeded splendidly.

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