Talented and dedicated engineers spent countless hours designing Japan’s rail system to be one of the world’s most efficient. Could have just asked a slime mold.
When presented with oat flakes arranged in the pattern of Japanese cities around Tokyo, brainless, single-celled slime molds construct networks of nutrient-channeling tubes that are strikingly similar to the layout of the Japanese rail system…
If you don’t already know, Nature does pretty much everything better than us. Kingfisher birds are more aerodynamic than the Bullet Train, the Galapagos Shark repels bacteria through a cellular pattern on it’s skin, and the simple slime mold, without a brain, can construct a highly efficient network that rivals the JR rail system.
The study of these innovations from Nature is called Biomimicry, and I first came across it through this awesome TED talk by Janine Benyus.
It’s one of those concepts that will make you go “Oh, Snap!” in it’s beauty and simplicity. Why waste your time and energy trying to design something when Nature has already done it for you, in an incredibly more efficient manner.
Janine’s brainchild, AskNature.org, is a database for various solutions Nature has come up with to a myriad of problems, from the super efficient gas-chamber buoyancy control of the nautilus, to the built-in non-stick grip of a polar bear’s paws. It’s also a social networking site of sorts, allowing users to contribute solutions and discuss them, harnessing the best of both worlds: Nature’s innovations and Humankind’s ability to think and collaborate.
Not being an engineer or scientist, I can’t say how far this field of study can take us, but judging from the real-life applications already in existence (check out the products section) I think it has almost infinite potential.
One thing I think they should add is a way for non-members to contribute ideas or questions that might not be as scientifically sound. Someone from outside the scientific community could notice an interesting behavior in an animal or plant and submit it to the site for consideration (although it pains me to say it, this could even be in a Yahoo Answers style format). Of course many of these comments would be useless, but I think lowering the barriers for participation is important, especially when you need to attract as many people as possible.
Another obvious thing would be to tap into the power of other internet resources out there. Something simple like showing related Flickr/Wikipedia images of an animal or plant in the solution would be interesting.
In the future, I hope the site becomes a resource not just for scientists/engineers/designers, but for everyday people who are interested in why or how Nature builds things. At the very least, I hope Google indexes the solutions!