Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Exciting Biomimetics and Regretful Statements by a Physics Nobel Prize Winner

Hi All :

I just popped the wrapping off my April, 2008, National Geographic (a continuing gift from my brother in Colorado who knows how to get something for the guy who has everything). You need to look at it too, and go for the article "BIOMIMETICS: design by nature" (p. 68).

In case you have not heard, biomimetics is the study of how things work in nature, with the potential goal of mimicking those features in new technology. Wow, look at all the great examples:
(1) boxfish contours inspire improved aerodynamics to boost auto gas mileage;
(2) the thorny desert lizard of Australia motivates a search for dry-region water-capture technology;
(3) the lowly cocklebur inspired velcro;
(4) the naturally self-cleaning and water-repellant lotus leaf inspired "Lotus effect" paints which "repel water and resist stains for decades";
(5) the humpback whale flipper's scallopped edge is inspiring tests of revised wind power turbine blades;
(6) sharkskin inspires synthetic fabrics and coatings which reduce drag, with applications from swimwear to Navy ship hulls;
(7) an insect (the fly) wing inspires new designs for wings;
(8) the gecko foot, with millions of "spatula-tipped hairs", inspires wall-crawling devices that would put Spiderman to shame;
(9) the nanoscale multifaceted eye of a moth is structured to reduce reflection, inspiring German engineers to develop a photosensitive lacquer to vastly reduce glare on a computer monitor.

And that is just the short list. An article in Science News some time ago ("Ocean Envy," Science News, September 4, 2004, Vol. 166, No. 10) took a look at a few "marvels of engineering" in describing locomotion of a variety of sea creatures. The SN article included the humpback whale mentioned in National Geographic, and discussed some biomimetic principles to develop improved watercraft:

"The tubercles significantly altered the flipper's performance in the fluid flow. Lift, comparable to the upward force on an airplane wing, was 8 percent greater on the scalloped flipper than on the smooth one. Drag, the counterbalancing force to lift, was as much as 32 percent less on the scalloped flipper than on the smooth one. The extra lift and reduced drag on the flipper turns a humpback's body more sharply than a smooth fin could.".

What to make of this? Golly, it sure looks like design! In fact, the cover page of the Science News, September 4, 2004, ran the byline "Marvels of Engineering."

Now the word "engineering" usually implies application of intelligence and design for a purpose. Pity the poor editors. When they know they are supposed to keep inferences of design out of their journals, it's just tough to keep out words like design and engineering when they seem so natural. It is just so natural to talk about the design or purpose of some structure in nature instead of merely referring to its function. Maybe discussion of teleonomy will come another day.

But the bottom line today is to contravene the regretful words of Eric Cornell, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Physics, adapted from a speech he gave at his induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (see TIME, November 14, 2005, "What Was God Thinking? Science Can't Tell"). Dr. Cornell opines that,
"...as exciting as intelligent design is in theology, it is a boring idea in science. Science isn't about knowing the mind of God; it's about understanding nature and the reasons for things." Then he goes on to say, "My call to action for scientists is, Work to ensure that the intelligent design hypothesis is taught where it can contribute to the vitality of a field (as it could perhaps in theology class) and not taught in science class , where it would suck the excitement out of one of humankind's great ongoing adventures."

Well, belief in intelligent design was in fact THE MOTIVATION for the founders of many of the disciplines of modern science. Let's just take one example. A prayer of James Clerk Maxwell, who formulated the four laws of electomagnetic field theory, said this:
" Almighty God, Who hast created man in Thine own image, and made him a living soul that he might seek after Thee, and have dominion over thy creatures, teach us to study the works of Thy hands, that we may subdue the earth for our use, and strengthen the reason for Thy service; so to receive thy blessed Word, that we may believe on Him Whom Thou hast sent, to give us the knowledge of salvation and the remission of our sins. All of which we ask in the name of the same Jesus Christ, our Lord."

James Clerk Maxwell does not sound "bored" and it does not sound like the excitement of his work had been sucked out. Actually he sounds highly motivated, as in "motivated by the Most High God (El Shaddai)".

And I would venture that James Clerk Maxwell will be remembered long after Eric Cornell is long forgotten.

Need more examples? Just go read some history of science. Maybe begin with The Soul of Science by Pearcey and Thaxton. Don't skip Chaper One.

And this biomimetics stuff - figuring out designs that are already there - is very exciting to some folks. The NG article quotes Andrew Parker, thorny devil lizard researcher:
"I could look through here and find 50 biomimetics projects in half an hour. I try not to walk in here in the evening, because I end up getting carried away and working until midnight."

Finally, beginning with the correct world view (that the world is designed by God, though since fallen to some degreee in the physical world) tends to guide research correctly. Read my recent post about "junk DNA" and "vestigial organs."

http://darwin-is-dead.blogspot.com/2008/03/junk-dna-and-kindra-grinsell-poster.html

If you read it carefully, you will see that some folks would have had the Human Genome Project map only the protein-coding part of the genome and not "waste" time on all that non-coding "junk DNA". Maybe all that "micromanager RNA" was discovered only because the Director of the HGP was Francis Collins, who was and is a bold advocate for faith in God. He wrote the book, "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief." See:

http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/04/03/collins.commentary/index.html

Here is a guy who knows God does not make junk, and had good (theological) reason to look for "signal" in what another man considered "noise."

So... when Dr. Eric Cornell, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics , says "What Was God Thinking? Science Can't Tell," he is simply flat-out wrong. The hydraulics folks started to get clued in what God was thinking when they deduced that those cleverly crafted humpback whale fins increase force and reduce drag. The Human Genome Project folks figured out that God was thinking "micromanager RNAs" (and more) when he created the FULL genome. And there is surely much much more God was thinking in creation. For as much as we now know in modern science, we suspect there is much more that man is only now beginning to glimpse dimly.

And that is not exciting?

I feel sorry for Dr. Cornell that he can find only such earth-bound meaning in the research that he does. But I am much sadder that he deceives people. He deceives people by pompously proclaiming that his way is not only best, but the only way. His promising path for scientific inquiry is to first toss God off the boat and then vaingloriously man the helm to puff the pride of pretentious humanity.

That boat sounds a bit like Titanic to me.

Respectfully submitted,

D.U.


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