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Guardian Unlimited
Popular Science

Peter Forbes

The Gecko's Foot

People have always based the design of things they make upon structures from the natural world. One might expect us to move away from this as we become more immersed in technology, but in Peter Forbes' new book he shows that on the contrary, new technology has brought new ways of seeing nature, which in turn has lead to new inspiration in engineering. Thus the microscopic bumps on a lotus leaf lead to self-cleaning materials, while the filaments on the gecko's foot promise a new way of sticking things together - the gecko can walk on the ceiling. We also hear about attempts to build minature aircraft, based on the methods of flight used by insects.

The ability to work out the structure of natural proteins using gene sequencing and fast computers has lead several intruiging possibilities, such as new materials based on spider silk. Further ahead there is the possibility of copying the self-assembly of proteins to construct our own nanomachines.

This is Forbes first book aimed at a popular science readership - he has come to science writing from a background in poetry, but thankfully avoids the temptation of making his writing too flowery. Some of the longer chapters seemed to get a bit lost, but on the whole he does an excellent job in making recent technological research accessible to the non-technical reader, and showing that there is not as much of a gap between technology and the natural world as some people might think.

Amazon.com info
Hardcover 288 pages  
ISBN: 0007179901
Salesrank: 5629361
Weight:1.19 lbs
Published: 2005 Fourth Estate Ltd
Marketplace:New from $51.01:Used from $2.38
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Amazon.co.uk info
Hardcover 288 pages  
ISBN: 0007179901
Salesrank: 1013010
Weight:1.19 lbs
Published: 2005 Fourth Estate
Marketplace:New from £64.73:Used from £7.00
Buy from Amazon.co.uk
Amazon.ca info
Hardcover 288 pages  
ISBN: 0007179901
Salesrank: 2453112
Weight:1.19 lbs
Published: 2005 HarperCollins Canada / Fourth Estate
Marketplace:New from CDN$ 112.09:Used from CDN$ 17.44
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Product Description
A cutting-edge science book in the style of FERMAT'S LAST THEOREM and CHAOS from an exciting and accessible new voice in popular science writing. Bio-inspiration is the new engineering. Instead of - in its crudest terms - welding large piece of hard 'dry' right-angled metal together scientists, architects and engineers are looking at imitating (or mimicking) nature by manufacturing 'wet' materials such as spider silk or the surface of the gecko's foot. The amazing power of the gecko's foot has long been known - it can climb a vertical glass wall and even walk upside down on the ceiling - but nothing could be done with it because its mechanism was beyond the power of optical microscopes. Recently though the secret of the gecko's foot has been solved by a team of scientists in Portland, Oregon who have established that the mechanism really is dry, and that is does not involve suction, capillary action or anything else the lay person might imagine. Each foot has iGBP million bristles and each bristle ramifies into hundreds of finer spatula-shaped projections. The fine scale of the gecko's foot is beyond the capacity of conventional microengineering but a team of nanotechnologists have already made a good initial approximation. The gecko's foot is just one of many examples of this new 'smart' science. In Peter Forbes' accessible and engaging book we also discover, amongst other things, how George de Mestral's brush with the spiny fruits of the cocklebur inspired him to invent Velcro; how the shape of leaves opening from a bud has inspired the design of solar-powered satellites; how scientists are trying to mimic the self-cleaning leaves of the Scared Lotus plant to create the first self-cleaning pane of glass; and the parallels between cantilever bridges and the spines of large mammals such as the bison. The new 'smart' science of Bio-inspiration is going to produce a plethora of products over the next decades that will transform our lives, and force us to look at the world in a completely new way. It is science we will be reading about in our papers very soon; it is the science of tomorrow's world.