Science Book a Day Interviews Peter Forbes

peter-forbesSpecial thanks to Peter Forbes for answering 5 questions about his recently featured book – The Gecko’s Foot: How Scientists are Taking a Leaf from Nature’s Book

Peter Forbes is a science writer with a special interest in the relationship between art and science. He initially trained as a chemist and worked in pharmaceutical and popular natural history publishing, whilst writing poems, and articles for magazines such as New Scientist and World Medicine.   He has written numerous articles and reviews, many specializing in the relation between the arts and science, for The GuardianIndependentThe Times, Daily MailFinancial TimesScientific AmericanNew Scientist, World Medicine, Modern PaintersNew Statesman, and other magazines. – From Peter’s Homepage

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#1 – What was the impetus for writing this book?

I discovered mimicry in nature in the mid 80s when I was working as a desk editor on natural history encyclopaedias. In learning about the intricate techniques by which one creature mimics another I also discovered the astonishing power of some natural creatures, way beyond the capacity of human engineering. I came across the classic work by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, On Growth and Form, first published in 1917. Then I encountered the dinosaur bridge designed by the team that went on to create the London Eye: Marks and Barfield. The dinosaur bridge was based on an analysis by D’Arcy Thomson of the stress in a dinosaur’s backbone that allowed it to balance its neck with its tail. I was hooked, and quickly encountered the self-cleaning properties of the Lotus leaf and the amazing adhesion of the gecko’s foot. I started to collect examples of bio-inspiration, unaware that the disciple was growing up in universities. In the ’90s I recognised that there was a book here and started to attend the Reading University symposium on biomimetics (as it is often called). This led to a series of articles on the subject in the Guardian newspaper from 2000-2003 and eventually to the book.

#2 – Can you tell us what biomimicry is and what developments can already be attributed to this new field of engineering?

Biomimicry is the development of technical engineered systems that exploit natural systems. Nature’s most ingenious processes are in the end chemical and physical, and often based on intricate nano structures. These are reproducible by technical means. Classic examples include the self-cleaning surfaces of the Lotus leaf, which relies on nanostructuring of water-repelling surfaces. This is currently the basis of a major industry in self-cleaning materials. The nano structuring enhances water replay to a degree unobtainable by smooth surfaces. Then there’s the gecko itself, its remarkable grip the result of a billion tiny spatulate endings on the hairs on the footpad. Many labs are working on gecko tape.

#3 – The book has been out since 2005. What has been the reaction to the book by scientists and the public?

The book had good reviews and has been published in 5 countries. It is recommended reading on many courses, including at Oxford and Cambridge. Its sales grow steadily as the subject increased in importance. Most gratifying have been reactions I encountered when I researched my new book. A researcher told me that as a Masters student he had been at a loss what do next, until he was loaned a copy of The Gecko’s Foot. He decided to do his PhD on the subject and went on to do ground-breaking work on synthetic materials based on abalone nacre, which is super tough and iridescent.

#4 – Has the field of bio mimicry surprised you in the way it has developed since you wrote the book? What future challenges can you foresee?

The most noticeable change, ten years on, is that a very high proportion of the papers in Science and Nature now involve bio-inspired techniques. When I wrote the book I was over-optimistic about early commercial developments but I now realise that major new technologies can take three or four decades to reach fruition.

To be able to make biomass and fuel from carbon dioxide, using sunlight the way plants do (artificial photosynthesis) is the most exciting challenge on the planet. Success would help to solve both our energy gap and global warming.My favourite example of bio-inspiration is the work of Carlo Montemagno and David Wendell in which they created a biomass reactor by harnessing processes from three different living systemsa foam from the Tungara frog, the universal ATP energy motor from bacteria; and the light-harvesting pigment bacteriorhodopsin from the salt-loving purple bacterium Halobacterium salinarum.

#5 – Are you working on any new projects/books that you can tell us about?

I have a new book coming out In April: Nanoscience: Giants of the Infinitesimal (Papadakis), a full-colour illustrated book co-written with the sculptor Tom Grimsey. This is a natural follow-up to Gecko because most, but not all, bio-inspiration is nano. Tom has made kinetic sculptures that illustrate nano self-assembly principles. In the book, we feature bio-inspired nano and also purely technical nano. The whole idea of nano began in nature: Richard Feynman famously writes in his seminal 1959 talk ‘Plenty of Room at the Bottom’, that this small scale is where “nature does her best work”.

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