How the Genius of Nature Could Help us Live Smarter

You can explore our online examples of how new science is uncovering the secrets behind billion-year-old inventions.

Humans have been inventing since the first spear was fashioned. Nature, using tiny scales of size and vast scales of time, has been inventing on a much more complicated and successful level. Now that we are able to work at smaller scales, people are starting to understand how nature transforms sunlight into energy, or how it creates structures that require no heat and no toxins to build. If we can find inspiration in those inventions, we may be on the cusp of a non-industrial revolution.

The impacts of this could change everything. Uncovering the process that frogs use to freeze solid could change healthcare, especially for transplants. There are moths that have eyes that reflect no light, a great asset for night vision, and even more promising for solar power. Solar cells now in production reflect 30 percent of what strikes them. Using the structure found in moth eyes cuts that to zero increasing the efficiency of solar energy systems. And what about making energy out of the sun the way plants do? That, and recyclable textiles made the way spiders make silk, are also on the table. 

Did you know loons have their own internal desalination plants so they can drink salt water during their winters at sea? Companies are working to replicate what loons do to make more fresh water available around the world. The list of ideas goes on, and every time a new idea is discovered it starts with someone watching nature, (is that loon drinking salt water?) and wondering. Computer companies are watching ants communicate to see how they spread news so fast, and they are watching to see how bees vote and how swarming locusts never crash into each other. 

Look around you, and see a world of invention that can make our current best efforts look a little old fashioned. 


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Dog Knows Cancer Smells

Dog Knows Cancer Smells

Cancer cells release distinct gases. When a gas enters a dog’s nose it gets sorted the way your eyes can sort the texture on the dog's nose on this screen. Dog's noses are so refined they can recognize the twist of different chemicals wafting up from a ten-year-old drop of blood.

You’ve probably seen a dog insistently sniff. Some dog owners had pets that kept snuffling specific patches of the owners’ skin. Some of these people acted on their dog's advice and had the spots checked out. When they were diagnosed with skin cancer they told doctors about the sniffing behavior, and that opened the door to a look at whether the dogs were actually recognizing cancer. It turned out they were.

This new understanding that different cancers have different smells, coupled with a deeper understanding of how dogs detect and sort smells, may deliver cancer and other disease detection devices.


In a clinic. Man-made lung cancer sniffers are now in research stages.

Cacti are a good source of ideas for desert living.

They manage to stay cool in a broiling climate. Look at the building on the left and you can see some of the ideas that make these plants a cool model for building design.

See the sort of fuzzy objects sticking out from the building? Those mimic spikes on a cactus and form a thicket of shade down the side of the structure. The swollen shape, with a smaller top and wider middle, leaves the lower part in shade during the hottest part of the day when the sun is directly overhead.

Cacti also seal up during the day, and do their breathing at night, when the desert cools. These ideas — from the shape to the spikes to air systems that refresh at night — are being used in scorching climates to help buildings keep cool.


In the Middle East. A new government building in Doha, Qatar will sprout a cactus form.