Saturday, 15 October 2005

The Gecko’s Foot – Peter Forbes *****

The great thing about reviewing popular science is that there’s always something new coming along. Just when you begin to think that every book being published is about the origins of human beings or some aspect of human development, out pops a gem like The Gecko’s Foot. And it’s no ordinary gem, it’s a brilliant one.
Peter Forbes proves an excellent expositor of the science behind some of nature’s most remarkable capabilities and the efforts to produce technology that doesn’t so much mimic those capabilities as use an understanding of the physical effects involved to inspire wonderful technological possibilities. Most of these technologies are still to be fully developed, though two are fully commercial – the familiar Velcro and its imitators, inspired by the stickiness of a burr, and more amazing self-cleaning materials like paint and glass that dirt simply roll off – given a kickstart by the ability of lotus leaves to repel water and mud.
The gecko’s foot of the title is one of the most remarkable. There’s no gluey stickiness to the gecko’s foot, nor does it use suckers or some strange muscular ability – you can detach the part of the foot that gives it the ability to walk up plate glass (harmlessly to the creature – it re-grows like hair) and use it to make “gecko tape” that sticks to pretty well anything – instead it relies on a tiny force at the nano-level, multiplied up by the use of a vast number of tiny surface contacts. Joining attempts to produce an artificial gecko effect you’ll come across the possibility of making super spider silk (in one attempt from the milk of genetically modified goats), the amazing capabilities of photonic materials, inspired by natural irridescence and providing amazing optical capabilities from a net of nanoscopic holes, plus technology that attempts to reproduce a fly’s uncanny ability to move through the air any which way, and more. It’s mind boggling and brilliant.
The only problem with the book, which isn’t entirely trivial, but is overwhelmed by the delight of the content, is that Forbes can wax just a bit too lyrical about the wonders of nature’s “engineering”. The first, introductory chapter basically says “isn’t nature wonderful” with the odd nod in the direction of ancient Eastern wisdom for 28 pages, and is much too long. He’s fine when he’s talking about the science, but there is a distinct tendency to move into waffle mode when, for instance, referring to the capabilities of the lotus plant to shed water and dirt he says: “There is a school of thought that science has still to rediscover the greater wisdom of the Ancients. In the case of the lotus they are right. In ancient Eastern cultures the lotus’s immaculate emergence from muddy water was more than noticed: the plant became a symbol of the triumph of enlightenment over the dross of earthly life.”
Well, yes, but frankly, so what? How much science or practical engineering did said Ancients derive from the lotus’s self-cleaning capability? None. There’s no wisdom to rediscover here – delightful though the symbolism might be. You might as well try to derive science from the West’s symbolism of the dove as a sign of peace. There is no connection between the fact that we can use the amazing capabilities of the natural world to inspire new technology and pretty symbolism.
Luckily, though, this attempt to get in touch with one’s navel is largely limited to the introduction, and hence we can still honestly award the book a well-deserved five stars. When he sticks to the science and technology, the writing is excellent and the topic is wonderful. This has to be one of the best popular science books of 2005. Highly recommended.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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