Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘design’

25 AUGUST, 2009

AskNature: The Biomimicry Design Portal


Life lessons from the natural world, or what Galapagos sharks can teach us about healthcare.

Imagine that the solutions to the world’s most intractable problems already exist — right in front of us, just waiting for humanity to take notice. From carbon load to water scarcity, the biggest challenges of the near future are already solved somewhere in nature’s genius.

According to AskNature, the world’s first biomimicry portal, explores this untapped problem-solving treasure chest. Launched in November of 2008, the project is the brainchild of author, science consultant and TEDster Janine Benyus, founder of the Biomimicry Institute. And its mission is nothing short of saving the planet by encouraging designers and engineers to emulate nature, one evolutionarily designed organism at a time.

AskNature arose from the philosophy that the ultimate designer and engineer of life — a 3.8-million-year-old R&D department, as Benyus has called it — is life itself. The sister site to E. O. Wilson’s Encyclopedia of Life, the project provides an interactive open-source platform for the study of natural solutions to innate environmental problems. To date, the site contains a catalog of more than 1200 natural “strategies” for processes like chelation, desalination, and energy production.

Benyus laid out the framework for AskNature in her 2005 TED talk. With a brilliant presentation long in potential but short(er) in practical application, she made a compelling case for biomimicry — designing in the example of nature — as an alternative to unsustainable industries.

But this was only an introduction. When Benyus returned to TED this year, her presentation was replete with real-life entrepreneurial examples of businesses drawing on the natural world to devise sustainable products and technologies.

One such example comes from an engineer at the Japanese train manufacturer JR-West, who studied Kingfisher birds in mid-dive to determine how they avoided any splash upon impact, then applied this to minimizing the noise produced by bullet trains puncturing air pressure vacuums as they exit tunnels. That not only quieted the train, but made it go 10% faster on 15% less electricity.

Diving Kingfisher birds inspire quieter, more efficient trains.

In another instance of biomimetic implementation, aerospace firms Grimshaw Architects and Qinetic researched insects that collect water from fog, replicating these mechanisms in frost-repelling aircraft surfaces and skins for arid climes.

Perhaps the most compelling example is that of AQUAporin, a Danish cleantech company that finds its inspiration for water desalination technology in our very own red blood cells. With water scarcity topping experts’ lists of imminent global crises, AQUAporin’s biologically sourced method of osmosis could be the lifeblood of our collective future.

Human red blood cells provide a reverse osmosis model for water desalination.

These are just a few examples of biomimicry’s incredible, far-reaching potential for application, and yet billions are being spent in R&D labs around the world on reinventing the wheel when nature provides prolific, evolution-tested design and technology solutions. We find it astounding that, given how obvious biomimicry’s solutions seem, academy and industry haven’t been drawing on this latent knowledge all along.

The unique micro-scales on sharks

In 2005, Benyus pointed out the obstacle of disciplinary “silos” — the tendency of engineers, designers, scientists, technologists, and other professionals to work in isolation from each other, missing opportunities to synergize problem-solving. But the success of any biomimetic project depends on this interdisciplinary cross-pollination of ideas. AskNature invites practitioners from diverse fields to explore the library, contribute to it, and draw from each other’s knowledge in a way that yields truly revolutionary solutions.

Go ahead and AskNature how it created the foundation — and the ongoing miracle — of life. You’ll be amazed.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not doing the work spends far, far too much time on  Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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24 AUGUST, 2009

The Ancient Book of Sex and Science


The alchemy of erotica, or what’s making Walt Disney blush in his grave.

This summer, four insanely talented Pixar animators — Scott Morse, Nate Wragg, Lou Romano, and Don Shank — got together and released a racy side project exploring, in broad color and evocative commentary, humanity’s most popular topic from the least likely of angles.

The Ancient Book of Sex & Science was born.

In 80 whimsical pages, the collection of vintage-inspired artwork is a voyage into the human mind, with all of its carnal obsessions and romantic mythologies.

The book traces the full spectrum of sex and science — sex and aliens, sex and robots, sex and math, sex and the tools of innovation, sex and the Atomic Age — with pure, playful whimsy that disarms any preconceptions of vulgarity.

As I began working on this book, I found myself heavily inspired by the cover artwork of old science books. A favorite series of mine is the “How and Why Wonder Books.” As I looked over the entire series, I thought to myself, “There is no Sex and Science issue.” This gave me the perfect excuse to create my own volume for the series. The end result is the long lost “Sex and Science” edition that was never published. ~ Nate Wragg for Nerve

The Ancient Book of Sex & Science is the second in a series grouped around themes the animators couldn’t explore in their regular work. The first, titled The Ancient Book of Myth and War, sold out in a matter of weeks and is now available — and priced — as a collector’s item.

Miraculously, Amazon still has this one.

The Pixar team is planning two more.

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18 AUGUST, 2009

Poetry On The Road’s VisualPoetry


Goethe in code, the texture of text, and what Flickr has to do with rhyme and rhythm.

You may think of poetry as the ultimate analog art, but the Poetry On The Road international literary festival in Bremen begs to differ. For the past decade, the festival has been aiming to liberate poetry from the constraints of convention, and one of the ways it does that is through the VisualPoetry initiative.

Every year, Poetry On The Road commissions German designer and developer Boris Müller to capture the festival’s theme visually. Although the resulting abstract graphic motifs and patterns are visually complex, they all follow the same simple idea: Müller takes all the text of all the poetry from the festival’s program, calculates the frequency of each word, and and uses Processing — the software of choice for most data viz art — to generate visual representations, varying the aesthetics each year.

These images are then used in the festival’s annual poster and live as an interactive playground that lets viewers explore the poetry in a visual, non-linear way.

For this year’s visual theme, for example, Müller represents each word as a rectangle, scaled based on the word’s frequency, then stitches the many rectangles together into a barcode that captures the text in its entirety. In theory, you could decode and “read” the poetry with a regular barcode scanner.

And in 2007, he crafted a visualization entirely from Flickr images, swapping each word in a poem for a photo tagged with that word.

The 2003 theme was reminiscent of Stefanie Posavec’s Writing Without Words project, which you may recall from a couple of months ago. Here, Müller explores the nature, texture and inner structure of poems, letting the text lay itself out through the software.

The VisualPoetry experiment is a beautiful effort to capture poetry through rhyme and rhythm of a different kind, to add a dimension that makes it more accessible and alluring and exciting to new audiences and, ultimately, to create a new kind of storytelling that challenges our assumptions about the experience of poetry as a conceptual medium.

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