Posts bySheba Plamthottam

Biomimetics spotlight: a gecko’s special toes

“There’s nothing in the world that hasn’t been thought of before. Invention is almost always just arranging things in a new way.”
-Van Phillips, inventor of a prosthetic leg inspired by cheetahs

One of the most beautiful things about Mother Nature is how she has learned from four billion years of evolution to carry out her tasks successfully, efficiently, and sustainably—without getting in the way of everything else. Humans, though, have a rare habit of destroying things after we use them. Take, for example, the millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the ocean, destroying many an ecosystem to provide us with a non-renewable resource that keeps our houses warm and our cars running. Or look at the deforestation of our rain forests, which has led to the extinction of hundreds of known and unknown species for the purpose of temporarily creating a more comfortable life for us all.

Biomimetics—the study of nature to solve human problems—strives to eliminate this domineering mindset towards nature and look to her instead with respectful imitation, to improve our lives today without destroying the place that will take care of our offspring tomorrow. Over the years, remarkable achievements have been made in biomimetics, from the prosthetic leg inspired by cheetahs, to the the first flying machine which imitated the birds in the sky, to bulletproof vests fabricated using a process similar to how spiders spin their webs, and even to biologically-inspired photovoltaics from studying the process of photosynthesis. Questioning how nature solves its problems can lead us to discover answers to some of our most complicated problems. Over the next few months, you’ll see a series of posts from me about recent discoveries made by scientific groups working in the field of biomimetics. Let’s start off with a look at a remarkable discovery that was made here at UC Berkeley by a group studying the movement of the gecko.