Skip to main content

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.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Artificial Intelligence - Melanie Mitchell *****

As Melanie Mitchell makes plain, humans have limitations in their visual abilities, typified by optical illusions, but artificial intelligence (AI) struggles at a much deeper level with recognising what's going on in images. Similarly in some ways, the visual appearance of this book misleads. It's worryingly fat and bears the ascetic light blue cover of the Pelican series, which since my childhood have been markers of books that were worthy but have rarely been readable. This, however, is an excellent book, giving a clear picture of how many AI systems go about their business and the huge problems designers of such systems face.

Not only does Mitchell explain the main approaches clearly, her account is readable and engaging. I read a lot of popular science books, and it's rare that I keep wanting to go back to one when I'm not scheduled to be reading it - this is one of those rare examples.

We discover how AI researchers have achieved the apparently remarkable abiliti…

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

Colin Stuart - Four Way Interview

Colin Stuart is an astronomy journalist, author and science communicator. He has written fourteen science books to date, which have been translated into nineteen languages, including 13 Journeys Through Space and Time: Christmas Lectures From the Royal Institution and The Universe in Bite-sized Chunks both published by Michael O’Mara Books. He also has written for the Guardian, the European Space Agency and New Scientist and has spoken on Sky News, BBC News and Radio 5 Live. He is a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and even has an asteroid named after him. His latest title is Rebel Star: our quest to solve the great mysteries of the Sun.

Why science? 

For me the stories that you can tell with modern science rival the most imaginative leaps in fiction. The secret, invisible kingdoms of bacteria and sub-atomic particles. The logic defying realms of black holes and Big Bangs. That excites me more than Hogwarts or Mordor. The universe is an amazing place and we’ve only just scratche…