Tag Archives: Engineering

Biomimetics again: scientists reverse engineer the design of snake scales

Apologetics and the progress of science
Apologetics and the progress of science

Today, I have an example of biomimetics.

But first, here’s what that is:

Biomimetic refers to human-made processes, substances, devices, or systems that imitate nature. The art and science of designing and building biomimetic apparatus is called biomimetics, and is of special interest to researchers in nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), the medical industry, and the military.

This is from Science Daily. (H/T Fuz Rana)

It says:

A snake moves without legs by the scales on its belly gripping the ground. It generates friction at the points needed to move forwards only and prevents its scales from being worn off by too much friction. Researchers of KIT have found a way to transfer this feature to components of movable systems. In this way, durability of hip prostheses, computer hard disks or smartphones might be enhanced.

“Friction and wear are two of the biggest challenges in systems of several individual components,” Christian Greiner of the Institute for Applied Materials says. A solution is found in nature: Snakes, such as the ball python, or lizards, such as the sandfish skink, use friction to move forwards, but can reduce it to a minimum thanks to their scales. Together with Michael Schäfer, Greiner developed a process to transfer the scale structure of reptiles to components of electromechanical systems: With a fiber laser, they milled scales into a steel bolt of 8 mm in diameter.

With the help of two different structures, the materials researchers tested whether the distance of the scales influences friction behavior. In the first structure, the scales overlap and are located very closely to each other, such as the scales on the belly of a ball python. The second structure consists of scales arranged in vertical rows at a larger distance, such as the skin of a sandfish skink. “The distance between the rows in our experiment was the smallest possible distance we could produce with the laser. The structure, hence, does not entirely correspond to that of the sandfish skink,” Greiner says. In the future, however, the researchers plan to produce structures that are closer to the original in nature.

[…]To find out whether scales reduce friction, Greiner and Schäfer fixed the structured surface of the bolts to a rotating plate. The experiments were carried out without and with a lubricant (1 ml of mineral oil). For the experiments with oil as lubricant, the scientists used steel disks. Under dry sliding conditions, sapphire disks were applied. The disk diameter was 50 mm.

Experiments under lubricated conditions revealed that both narrow and wide arrangements of the scales increase friction compared to the unstructured bolt: By the wide scales, friction is increased by a factor of 1.6. The narrow scales increase friction by a factor of 3. In the non-lubricated state, the wide scale structure reduced friction by more than 40 percent, while friction was reduced by 22 percent in case of a narrow scale structure.

The finding that the narrow scale structure increases friction under both lubricated and non-lubricated conditions had not been expected by the researchers: “We assumed that the narrow structure is more effective, as it is closer to nature,” Greiner says.

See the related posts for more examples of humans learning from the engineering designs in nature.

Related posts

Graduate students with non-STEM degrees increasingly dependent on welfare programs

From the Chronicle of Higher Education.


Melissa Bruninga-Matteau, a medieval-history Ph.D. and adjunct professor who gets food stamps: “I’ve been able to make enough to live on. Until now.”

“I am not a welfare queen,” says Melissa Bruninga-Matteau.

That’s how she feels compelled to start a conversation about how she, a white woman with a Ph.D. in medieval history and an adjunct professor, came to rely on food stamps and Medicaid. Ms. Bruninga-Matteau, a 43-year-old single mother who teaches two humanities courses at Yavapai College, in Prescott, Ariz., says the stereotype of the people receiving such aid does not reflect reality. Recipients include growing numbers of people like her, the highly educated, whose advanced degrees have not insulated them from financial hardship.

“I find it horrifying that someone who stands in front of college classes and teaches is on welfare,” she says.

Ms. Bruninga-Matteau grew up in an upper-middle class family in Montana that valued hard work and saw educational achievement as the pathway to a successful career and a prosperous life. She entered graduate school at the University of California at Irvine in 2002, idealistic about landing a tenure-track job in her field. She never imagined that she’d end up trying to eke out a living, teaching college for poverty wages, with no benefits or job security.

Ms. Bruninga-Matteau always wanted to teach. She started working as an adjunct in graduate school. This semester she is working 20 hours each week, prepping, teaching, advising, and grading papers for two courses at Yavapai, a community college with campuses in Chino Valley, Clarkdale, Prescott, Prescott Valley, and Sedona. Her take-home pay is $900 a month, of which $750 goes to rent. Each week, she spends $40 on gas to get her to the campus; she lives 43 miles away, where housing is cheaper.

Ms. Bruninga-Matteau does not blame Yavapai College for her situation but rather the “systematic defunding of higher education.” In Arizona last year, Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, signed a budget that cut the state’s allocation to Yavapai’s operating budget from $4.3-million to $900,000, which represented a 7.6 percent reduction in the college’s operating budget. The cut led to an 18,000-hour reduction in the use of part-time faculty like Ms. Bruninga-Matteau.

“The media gives us this image that people who are on public assistance are dropouts, on drugs or alcohol, and are irresponsible,” she says. “I’m not irresponsible. I’m highly educated. I have a whole lot of skills besides knowing about medieval history, and I’ve had other jobs. I’ve never made a lot of money, but I’ve been able to make enough to live on. Until now.”

She’s irresponsible, because she expects the people who choose to study rather difficult and unpleasant subjects like nursing and computer science and economics to pay for her lifestyle through taxation and “higher education funding”. I do think it’s important to point out that the main driver of higher tuition is increasing government funding of education, and that this increasing funding of higher education is nothing but corporate welfare.


The most obvious way that colleges might capture federal student aid is by raising tuition. Research to date has been inconclusive, but Stephanie Riegg Cellini of George Washington University and Claudia Goldin of Harvard have provided compelling new analysis. Cellini and Goldin looked at for-profit colleges, utilizing the key distinction that only some for-profit schools are eligible for federal aid. Riegg and Goldin find that that aid-eligible institutions “charge much higher tuition … across all states, samples, and specifications,” even when controlling for the content and quality of courses. The 75 percent difference in tuition between aid-eligible and ineligible for-profit colleges — an amount comparable to average per-student federal assistance — suggests that “institutions may indeed raise tuition to capture the maximum grant aid available.”

Here are some of the comments that I posted in a Facebook discussion about the CHE story:

I know that some may disagree with me, but this is why people need to focus on STEM fields and stay away from artsy stuff and Ph.Ds in general. We are in a recession. Trade school and STEM degrees only until things improve.

Also, no single motherhood by choice. Get married before you have children, and make sure you vet the husband carefully for his ability to protect, provide, commit and lead on moral and spiritual issues. This woman is not a victim. She chose her life, and the rest of us are paying for it. Nice tattoos by the way – that will really help when she’s looking for a job.

I am actually better at English than computer science, but I find myself with a BS and MS in computer science. We don’t get to do what we like. We do what we have to in order to be effective as Christians. According to the Bible, men have an obligation to not engage in premarital sex, and to marry before having children, and to provide for their families, or they have denied the faith. I would like to have studied English, but the Bible says no way.

I have no problem with people who can make a career out of the arts, like a Robert George or a William Lane Craig. But you can’t just go crazy. And I think men have a lot less freedom than women to choose their major, we have the obligation to be providers and we have to be selected by women based on whether we can fulfill that role (among other roles).

Women have more freedom because they are not saddled with the provider role like men are. However, I think that the times now are different than before. There is more discrimination against conservatives on campus in non-STEM fields and fewer non-STEM jobs in a competitive global economy. The safest fields are things like petroleum engineering, software engineering, etc.

If [people who major in the humanities] can make a living and support a family without relying on government-controlled redistribution of wealth, then I salute and encourage you. If you rely on the government, know that this money is being taken away from those who are doing things they don’t like at all in order to be independent and self-reliant. It is never good to be dependent on government. That money comes from people like me.

In response to an artsy challenger:

I am happy to be scorned by those who make poor choices so long as I can have my money back from them so that I can pursue my dreams. I didn’t see any of these artsy people in the lab at 4 AM completing their operating system class assignments, nor do I see them here working overtime on the weekend in the office. They can say anything and feel anything they want, and write plays and poetry all about their feelings, too. Just give me the money I earned back first. It’s not their money. They have no right to it.

One person asked why I was “always winter, never Christmas”, and I replied:

It is Christmas for the Christians who I send books and DVDs to, as well as for the Christian scholars I support, and the Christian conferences, debates and lectures I underwrite across the world. Unfortunately, every dollar taken from me is a dollar less for that Ph.D tuition of a Christian debater, a dollar less for the flight of that Christian apologetics speaker, a dollar less for that textbook for that Christian biology student, and a dollar less for the flowers being sent to that post-abortive woman who I counseled who is now in law school. I have a need for the money I earn, and when it’s sent to Planned Parenthood to pay for abortions by the government, my plan to serve God suffers. And finally, should I ever get married, I would like my wife to have the option of staying home with the children and even homeschooling them. That costs money. Somehow, I feel that given the choice between my homeschooling wife and the public school unions, the government will choose to give my money to the unions. Just a hunch.

I’m not Santa Claus – I have goals for the money I earn.

I think that people should go into the humanities when they are serious about making a career of it and can get the highest grades. But if they are coasting and only getting Bs and Cs and not paying attention in class, then drop out and go to trade school. Don’t complain later when you can’t find a job. STEM careers pay the most.

Top-earning degrees / college majors
Top-earning degrees / college majors

Here’s my previous post on the woman who accumulated $185,000 of student debt studying the humanities and is likewise demanding handouts and claiming not to be responsible.

Darwin’s Doubt will debut at #7 on the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction Bestseller List

Amazing news from Evolution News about the new book on the Cambrian explosion by Dr. Stephen C. Meyer.


Judging the success of an idea in reaching and convincing a large audience is a tricky business. In putting your case to the public in books and articles, are you making progress, just holding steady, or losing ground to competitors? What you want is a solid, unambiguous metric. Hmm, as a measure of success in getting a particular argument before a large chunk of the thoughtful, book-reading public, how does a spot on the New York Times bestseller list sound?

That would do nicely. And in fact it is just what we are very pleased to report. As careful readers will already have discerned from the headline, Stephen Meyer’s new book, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, will debut this coming Sunday in the #7 place on the New York Times hardback nonfiction list. See it here.

[…]You’ll also see the book opening at #10 on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list. Find it here.

[…]We attribute these indications of really impressive progress to the scientific, philosophical and yes, cultural and even spiritual importance of Dr. Meyer’s book, the unprecedented rigor and scope of his argument, combined with a lucidly accessible style that bestselling novelist Dean Koontz has praised, saying that Meyer “writes beautifully” and “marshals complex information as well as any writer I’ve read.”

It doesn’t hurt either that this broadly interdisciplinary book has won accolades from scientists representing a variety of relevant fields, including Harvard geneticist George Church, Mt. Holyoke paleontologist Mark McMenamin, State University of New York biologist Scott Turner, Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research biologist Wolf-Ekkehard Lönnig, and others, scientists whose own works are published by sources like Harvard University Press and Columbia University Press.

Excitement from the media has also played a role in getting out the word. Dr. Meyer has been on the Michael Medved Show several times, on the Dennis Prager Show, the Dennis Miller Show, and many other national and local talk-radio programs. Not trivial either is the decision by Barnes & Noble to feature the book with in-store displays in 300 of its bookstores across the country, likely due in part to the strong sales record of Meyer’s first book, Signature in the Cell.

The summary from the New York Times bestseller list web page is spot-on: “The theory of intelligent design best explains the appearance of animals in the fossil record without apparent ancestors.” That’s what the book is about, for certain.

Wow. It’s not every day that I link to the New York Times! But this isn’t surprising, considering that Dr. Meyer’s new book is picking up a lot of endorsements from mainstream scientists. Here’s the most recent one, by Dr. Mark C. Biedebach of California State University, Long Beach.

Recall that Dr. Stephen C. Meyer’s first book was one of the best books of 2009 according to the Times Literary Supplement.


Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell: DNA and the evidence for Intelligent Design (HarperCollins) is a detailed account of the problem of how life came into existence from lifeless matter – something that had to happen before the process of biological evolution could begin. The controversy over Intelligent Design has so far focused mainly on whether the evolution of life since its beginnings can be explained entirely by natural selection and other non-purposive causes. Meyer takes up the prior question of how the immensely complex and exquisitely functional chemical structure of DNA, which cannot be explained by natural selection because it makes natural selection possible, could have originated without an intentional cause. He examines the history and present state of research on non-purposive chemical explanations of the origin of life, and argues that the available evidence offers no prospect of a credible naturalistic alternative to the hypothesis of an intentional cause. Meyer is a Christian, but atheists, and theists who believe God never intervenes in the natural world, will be instructed by his careful presentation of this fiendishly difficult problem.

The person who nominated his first book to that list was non other than atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel. If you haven’t read the first book, get them both and read them both. These are the scientific issues that everyone who is considering theism versus naturalism should be reading about.

Harvard geneticist has positive words for intelligent design in biology

Evolution News writes about one of the people who has endorsed “Darwin’s Doubt”, the new book by Stephen C. Meyer about the Cambrian era fossils and intelligent design.


Harvard geneticist George Church has said some fascinating things on the theme of intelligent design. He’s particularly interested, if I’m summarizing correctly, in the idea of biology as engineering. So is Discovery Institute’s Stephen Meyer. Which is why, having read some of his published remarks, we sent Dr. Church an advance copy of Darwin’s Doubt asking that he look in particular at the middle section of the book, “How to Build an Animal,” which deals precisely with the massive engineering problems facing Darwinian evolutionary theory.

We were grateful to get back this gracious comment, which appears on the dust jacket.

Stephen Meyer’s new book Darwin’s Doubt represents an opportunity for bridge-building, rather than dismissive polarization — bridges across cultural divides in great need of professional, respectful dialog — and bridges to span evolutionary gaps.

While very gratifying to have his warm wishes, it’s not shocking that Dr. Church would share them with us. Back in 2008 he participated in a recorded seminar, “Life: What a Concept!,” with Freeman Dyson, Robert Shapiro, J. Craig Venter, and others.  He said:

As a scientific discipline, many people have casually dismissed Intelligent Design without carefully defining what they mean by intelligence or what they mean by design. Science and math have long histories of proving things, and not just accepting intuition — Fermat’s last theorem was not proven until it was proven. And I think we’re in a similar space with intelligent design.


The ribosome, both looking at the past and at the future, is a very significant structure — it’s the most complicated thing that is present in all organisms.Craig does comparative genomics, and you find that almost the only thing that’s in common across all organisms is the ribosome. And it’s recognizable; it’s highly conserved. So the question is, how did that thing come to be? And if I were to be an intelligent design defender, that’s what I would focus on; how did the ribosome come to be?

Is he an advocate of intelligent design like Stephen Meyer? No. Is he a very interesting, independent thinker, who has made some suggestive comments relevant to ID, about which one would like to have the opportunity to question him much further? Yes.

Dr. Church is not an advocate of intelligent design. But what’s striking is that unlike most people who don’t support ID, he thinks that they should be allowed to ask questions and should be allowed to make their case. And what’s more, if they make a good case, like Dr. Meyer does, then he thinks that people on the other side should consider that case respectfully. I wish more biologists would consider other views like that. Dr. Church is in the minority.

Target acquisition and interception in dragonflies

Here is a fascinating post about some of the capabilities of dragonflies from Evolution News.

Selective attention

First, dragonflies have “selective attention” – the ability to focus on a single prey and ignore other distractions:

Dragonflies are among the best flyers in the insect world. Their twin pairs of paper-thin wings allow them to hover and move in all directions, even in mating. When the time comes to dart after prey at high speed, they rarely miss.

What’s their secret? One is “selective attention” — a trait previously known only in primates, according to new research from the University of Adelaide, Australia. Selective attention is the ability to focus on one object and exclude others. Just as a tennis player must focus on the ball and ignore the cheers of the crowd, a dragonfly must pick out one target from a swarm of insects and avoid being distracted by all the others.

Here’s a snip from the research paper:

Our data make a compelling case that CSTMD1 reflects competitive selection of one target. We emphasize “competitive,” because the attended target is not always the same between trials or even within a trial, as seen in strikingly perfect switches from one to the other…. Competition is further suggested by rare examples where the activity observed under Pair stimulation initially lags both T1and T2 responses… suggesting initial conflict in the underlying neural network before resolution of competition by a “winning” target.

We previously showed that CSTMD1 still responds robustly to a target even when it is embedded within a high-contrast natural scene containing numerous potential distracters. Taken together with recent evidence that the behavioral state of insects strongly modulates responses of neurons involved in visuomotor control, our new data thus suggest a hitherto unexpected sophistication in higher-order control of insect visual processing, akin to selective attention in primates.Perhaps the most remarkable feature of our data is that once the response “locks” onto a target (or following a switch), the second target exerts no influence on the neuron’s response: the distracter is ignored completely.

In order to succeed at the task of catching its prey, the dragonfly has to tune out all other distractions.

Target selection

In addition, dragonflies have the ability to intercept a target in mid-air – similar missile defense systems on AEGIS cruisers and destroyers.

The Evolution News article explains:

Another paper on dragonflies shows that these marvels of the insect world are equipped with navigational equipment that can do vector calculus. In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Gonzalez-Bellido and a team at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute discerned “Eight pairs of descending visual neurons in the dragonfly [that] give wing motor centers accurate population vector of prey direction.

Intercepting a moving object requires prediction of its future location. This complex task has been solved by dragonflies, who intercept their prey in midair with a 95% success rate. In this study, we show that a group of 16 neurons, called target-selective descending neurons (TSDNs), code a population vector that reflects the direction of the target with high accuracy and reliability across 360°. The TSDN spatial (receptive field) and temporal (latency) properties matched the area of the retina where the prey is focused and the reaction time, respectively, during predatory flights. The directional tuning curves and morphological traits (3D tracings) for each TSDN type were consistent among animals, but spike rates were not. Our results emphasize that a successful neural circuit for target tracking and interception can be achieved with few neurons and that in dragonflies this information is relayed from the brain to the wing motor centers in population vector form.

What did I make of this? Well, evidence like this always causes me to think aboutthe reality of God, and the disturbing thought that we do not live in an accidental universe where I can do whatever I want and be accountable to no one. It’s easier to believe that – it requires less work and it frees us to be our own boss and make our happiness the first priority. As individuals, it’s very tempting for us to think that we are number one, and to resent our obligations to anyone else. The problem is that the scientific data doesn’t support that worldview. The facts are what they are and it is up to us, now, to try to find out who the designer is and what he wants from us.