Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Biomimicry by Janine M Benyus

This book was with me for too long and I must confess I took a while to complete. It is a dense book with solid examples.

Biomimicry is all about how to see Nature as model, mentor as well as measure. Author’s gripe is that, we have gone too far in linear extract-and-dump model – we should move from “brown” to “green”. Even in places where we have done a good job of emulating nature as in the case of airplane, we have started misusing it. To quote her, “We flew like a bird in 1903 and by 1914 we were dropping bombs from the sky.”

It is written with an unmitigated awe about nature and her creations. I see many wrinkles when you write a science book or scientific sounding book with such a disposition. May be awe would suit for other genres like novel etc. Some of the comparisons seems unfair when nature had eternity (4 billion years is eternity for humans) to improvise her designs and we have barely started by that standard. Author has met many accomplished people and their introductions makes for interesting reading like a good novel. Her information harvest and analogies from each expert are impressive.

I will summarize some of the points that grabbed my attention as well as taking one chapter and examining it in a bit more detail.

1.       Don’t use non-renewable faster than you can develop substitutes
2.       Don’t use renewable faster than nature can re-generate
3.       Technologies that produces by-products that society cannot use are essentially failed technologies
4.       In natural systems “cooperation” is as vital as “competition”
5.       Moderation of usage in materials and energy is the key in production
6.       Manufacture only when you need and only the quantity you require so that you don’t worry about storage or leakage – “Snake Venom law” (Poisonous snakes does this all the time)
7.       Nature does not commute to work.

About Nature: (each point made has poignant examples)

1.       It runs on sunlight and uses the energy it needs and no more
2.       It fits form to function, recycles everything, rewards cooperation
3.       It banks on diversity and demands local expertise
4.       It curbs the excesses from within and taps the power of limits

I am picking Chapter-6, “How will we store what we learn?” where she talks about molecular computing like the way cells compute. It start with famous “The library of Babel” by Jorge Luis Borges. It is such a library of all possible books with every combination of letters, punctuation marks and spaces. Most of the books then, would be a trash. But, in the near infinite library of books, there would be actual books that are readable. I assume, if a new word is added or invented (like in Shakespeare days) accordingly library strength will swell. I would love to visit such a library because, I will know if ever I will write a book. 
She makes eight points comparing the way we compute using computers and our brain as well as the way our cells compute. At this point, it seems correct mainly because computing is 4000 years old (you can double it if you want) compared to nature’s 4 Billion years. For instance, she complains about computers not doing stuff in parallel. But, such computers are well on their way. What one learns after observing computers is that, if one can do some stuff with near 100% precision for almost all the time, eventually that can overcome the well known challenges and comprehensively beat that. Chess Programs are classic examples. It is very likely 50 years from now, even world champions cannot win the computer programs and computer programs would win most of the times. Never mind, the eight points are written with awe!

Brain is made of carbon – not silicon. And that is one of her key points. Carbon is more versatile both from computing and memory standpoint. Perhaps, it is like switching from carbon filament to Tungsten in electric bulb. It would evolve and we need not be so defensive. She makes a good case for molecular computing.

Reading this book in some ways was a unique experience for me. I enjoyed it for its sheer number of anecdotes. But as I weighed more, there was less I could agree.

I am reminded of Sir Francis Bacon's observation: “Reading not to contradict or confute nor to take it for granted, but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, some to be chewed and digested, some books to be read in parts and some few to be read wholly with diligence and attention”. All right, in the end, it appears to be “part read” for me, but then, until I finished it fully, I did not know which parts. 

Thanks for reading this far.