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.



பகலவன் கிருஷ்ணமூர்த்தி said...

Hi Madhu,

Thanks for sharing your reading and excerpts from this interesting book. As mentioned, every invention by human also goes thru' its own evolution (i.e the bird/flight example)to meet the requirements of the day. "Generate only when and how much you need the resource" is a cliche.

Thanks and regards,

Mukund Srinivasan said...

Thanks for a crisp review of a (relatively) abstract, yet much cared about topic, which seems to be the crux of this book's focus! Bio-Diversity, while attractive to read, is rarely followed in action - the real-life example I am reminded of is the time I spent in Geneva, where I observed that shopkeepers would genuinely ask customers as to whether to take off any unwanted packaging, even from chocolate bars, as they cared about the environmental impact, and the potential cause-effect of bio-waste. I am reminded of the equivalent practices in North America towards plastic (brown bags phenomenon) as 'mimicry' of a concept, but with misplaced loyalties!

P.Varadarajan (Varad) said...

Madhu, thanks for summarising the book. You say the human race has not had the same time (billions of years) as Nature has had at its disposal. Don't you think we should be thankful for that? If we could do as much damage to Nature in this short a timeframe, we would have probably annihilated everything in Nature and also ourselves long back, if we had started off concurrently with Nature! Man may try to play God by tinkering with nature (as in rearranging the genetic code or whatever) and thumping the chest for a relatively small success, but eventually nature would tend to stay ahead, I think (look at the climate changes we are witnessing, obviously as a result of all our innovations).


MV said...

Anything that survived few million years has to be necessarily stable. Nature has discovered that stability in systems is possible by recycling. Accumulating waste (both energy and material) means unsustainable system. Many stable systems have a cycles - ocean currents, carbon cycles etc produces stable systems. Stable systems naturally were very efficient. However, stability itself could be a risk as in case of asteroid strikes. Nature itself is *not* perfect. It is not capable of controlling or balancing our environment on longer times scales. Several planets are apparently devoid of life where once it perhaps flourished. Sustaining "intelligent life forms" in "engineered self sustaining environments" is the critical to survival of our species. Imagine space capsules leaving earth creating settlements on different planets/moons/asteroids spreading the seeds of intelligent life. Perhaps we are just a result of such implantation adapted to the local environment over millions of years. Perhaps our DNA is a nano swarm computer designed to make the most out of the environment it lands on. I wonder...