Nature As Muse


Drawing Blueprints from Nature

By Delta Willis

Addison-Wesley 234pp $23

Engineers have sought inspiration from nature for centuries, but never more so than today. Each week brings fresh news of projects to use DNA as a computer or to build airplane wings with microflaps that function like feathers on birds' wings. The timing is right for The Sand Dollar and the Slide Rule by journalist Delta Willis, which probes how the forms of plants and animals are uniquely suited to environmental challenges, from kelp that withstands crashing waves to the skeleton of the frigate bird, which has a seven-foot wingspan yet weighs only four ounces. And it shows how these have influenced engineers and designers ranging from Leonardo da Vinci to Paul MacCready, inventor of the Gossamer Condor ultralight aircraft and General Motors Corp.'s Impact electric vehicle.

Willis' book has enough examples for a thousand cocktail-party asides. Did you know, for instance, that the Romans were able to fling 90-pound rocks a quarter-mile by using human tendons for springs? Or that the Eiffel Tower's spreading base was inspired by the oak tree?

Willis introduces dozens of scientists who try to extract the engineering secrets of Mother Nature. The one who comes through most clearly and sympathetically is D'Arcy Thompson, the Scottish biologist whose 1917 classic On Growth and Form disputed Darwinism by arguing that physical forces, such as wind and gravity, not natural selection, determined the shapes of living things.

Sand Dollar has some flaws: It has too few illustrations and photographs. And Willis has a jumpy, kinetic writing style that is long on anecdote and short on methodical explanation. Nonetheless, Sand Dollar is a good read for engineers, naturalists, and wannabes.