Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Gecko's Foot

Sometimes, it takes effort to keep up my Pale and Geeky credentials, such as when I read The Gecko's Foot.  Peter Forbes covers a fascinating topic - how engineering, both on the macroscopic and microscopic level, imitates nature - but in most chapters, he just can't seem to hit the right tone.  Perhaps Forbes, who has edited and translated poetry, is out of his area of expertise writing about science.  

I found the uneven tone frustrating because The Gecko's Foot covers such fascinating topics.  How does the lotus blossom manage to throw off dirty water?  Strange as it may seem, it's because the surface of the flower is extremely rough - not smooth as one would imagine - as seen through an electron microscope, and engineers have imitated this roughness to create paints and glass coatings which self-clean.  Forbes also discusses the less successful attempts to create spider silk and to imitate the nano-Velcro on the gecko's foot.  Forbes treats these technological quests with a combination of Gee Whiz Mr. Wizard and Mad Men hucksterism which I found annoying and somewhat condescending.  

Forbes's tone becomes much drier in the later chapters, possibly because the science of how insects fly or how light refracts on a butterfly's wing doesn't have a short-term commercial application.  With no obvious way to link biology to new technology, Forbes seems lost.  He mentions mollusk shells and suspension bridges but doesn't make a clear link between nature and the lab.  Forbes makes one clear connection between nature and innovation in the later chapters, when he discusses how an easily unfolded and refolded map imitates the way petals unfurl from a flower bud.  While this could have been fascinating, Forbes's description of the process reminded me of the old New Yorker cartoon where a student writes "And a miracle occurs" to get from two simple alkanes to a complex molecule.  Like the professor in the cartoon, I just wish he'd been a bit more explicit in step 2.

I hope I haven't given the impression that I didn't enjoy The Gecko's Foot because I did.  I'm just frustrated by the fact that I didn't enjoy it more.  After reading Stiff, I have to wonder what Mary Roach could have done with this material.

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