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— Introduction Hooke's Micrographia and biomimicry
01 → England's Leonardo: Micrographia's impact and legacy Outsized influence
02 → 03 Micro Problems: Microscopic waste, monumental disaster
Nature x Humanity: Biomimicry in architecture Material Ecology
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The deepest discoveries shew us the greatest excellencies
→ Robert Hooke, Micrographia
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Introduction in micrographia, robert hooke identifies, and bemoans the
crudeness and lack of beauty in the man-made objects he observes under his microscope. Hooke is extremely disappointed at the blunt form of the needle that he examines through the microscope, as well as other objects that he thought would be sharp, like the point of a compass. By contrast, Hooke notes that thanks to microscopy, he has observed hundreds of organic forms that are sharper and more elegant in their construction than the point of a needle. Examples of which include the hairs, bristles and claws of insects, as well as the thorns, crooks, and hairs of leaves and other flora. Hooke concludes his observation of the needle by positing that the closer we observe man-made objects, the more their perceived beauty fades, and becomes irregular shape. Whereas by contrast, the 'deepest discoveries’ of Nature, reveal another level of beauty and organisation, an observation that Hooke attributed to a higher creator than Man. With these stark observations regarding the crudeness of the man-made in comparison to the refinement of nature at all scales, Hooke could be said to be predicting the advent of biomimetic or biomimicry design. Biomimicry aims to bridge the gap between man and nature by either incorporating natural materials and processes into consumption and construction, or creating new materials inspired by the structures and properties inherent in the natural world. In essence, biomimicry is design that is inspired by the way that functional challenges have been
solved in biology. This may be the best source of solutions that will allow us to create a positive future and shift from the industrial age to the ecological age of mankind. This publication aims to explore and celebrate the legacy and long lasting influence of Robert Hooke's Micrographia. In Chapter 1, Allan Chapman gives seventeenth-century context to the work (which is now considered the first work of popular scientific visual communication) and explores just why the book was so important in revealing the world of the invisible to a large number of readers and stoking their scientific imaginations. Chapter 1 continues with a survey of the cutting-edge in microscopy today, highlighting the many fields where microscopic observation has either created, or enhanced their respective fields. In Chapter 2, the focus is shifted to the negative observable impact that Man has had on the microscopic world. This includes areas like microplastic pollution in the sea and the air, and the. Chapter 3 explores how attempts are being made to bridge the gap between man and nature, that Hooke identified so presciently 500 years ago in Micrographia by highlighting biomimicry in design and manufacturing, a hopeful development in humanity that will allow us to live in a way that draws from nature for inspiration, and repairs our relationship with the planet.
Ruairi Walsh Editor, The Invisible World
The Context of the New Science
Robert Hooke's scientific ideas
Robert Hooke's research – Microscopy
Outsized Influence – a survey of the impact of microscopy today
Cells by the Number
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Observation 39 Of the Eyes and Head of a Grey drone-fly
Robert Hooke, and the impact of Micrographia Allen Chapman Lecture given to the Royal Society London, 1997
survives of Robert Hooke, though when the German antiquarian and scholar Zacharias von Uffenbach visited the Royal Society in 1710, he specifically mentioned being shown the portraits of ‘Boyle and Hoock’, which were said to be good likenesses. Though Boyle’s portrait survives, we have no idea what has happened to that of Hooke. It is curious, furthermore, that when Richard Waller edited Hooke’s Posthumous Works for the Royal Society in 1710 he did not have this picture engraved to form a frontispiece to the sumptuous folio volume. On the other hand, we do possess two detailed pen portraits of Hooke written by men who knew him well. The first was that recorded by his friend John Aubrey, and describes Hooke in middle life and at the height of his creative powers: "He is but of midling stature, something crooked, pale faced, and his face but little below, but his head is lardge, his eie full and popping, and not quick; a grey eie." no portrait or contemporary visual likeness
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“ …his contributions to physical science came at the end of a period of a century and a half during which the once-coherent structures of classical science had received one blow after another”
The Context of the New Science Allen Chapman Lecture given to the Royal Society London, 1997
Before examining Hooke’s life and researches, however, it is important to look at their context, for his contributions to physical science came at the end of a period of a century and a half during which the once-coherent structures of classical science had received one blow after another. The explanations of the natural world which medieval European scholars had inherited from classical Greece had been static in character and based on a series of apparently self-evident principles. All changes of matter could be explained by the interaction of the four elements, Earth, Water, Air and Fire, as the principles of solidity, wetness, volatility and heat endlessly mixed and separated. These four elements also lay at the foundation of all living things. The hearts of all living creatures generated a spontaneous, or innate, heat, that was radiated throughout the body by the blood, while the life-principle of air, or pneuma, both intermingled with
Sir Francis Bacon On the new philosophy of experiment and inquiry of Restoration England
Nature must be put to the torture ←
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The context of the new science
“ …the laboratory… was the torture chamber wherein long-secretive nature would be cross-examined”
the blood in respiration, and also helped to cool the heart. Heat rose, cold congealed, ‘grass became flesh’, and flesh decayed when its life principle had departed. While this flux of elements prevailed on the earth, the heavens were made from a perfect, stable fifth element. Because they were made of one single and changeless substance, the stars and planets moved with a geometrical precision that nothing on earth could ever emulate, thus exemplifying that deep dichotomy between terrestrial and celestial that lay at the heart of all classical science. The ancient Greeks, and most significantly Aristotle, had devised a complete taxonomy of nature based on these principles by 350 BC, and for the next 1900 years it proved capable of answering most of the questions that could be addressed to it. It was a magnificent intellectual achievement, though it embodied a conservative approach to knowledge, and like librarianship or museum curation, saw its first duty as absorbing, classifying and preserving the known rather than exploring pastures new. But after 1492, the assaults on its allencompassing explanatory credibility
began to increase. The discovery of America fundamentally discredited ancient geography. Tycho Brahe’s supernova of 1572 and Galileo’s telescopic discoveries after 1609 similarly shook classical astronomy. Rapid developments in optics and mechanics, moreover, seemed to indicate that phenomena could be studied amidst the four chaotic elements of the Earth that were just as mathematically exact as those observed in the heavens, while in 1628 William Harvey discovered that the heart was a pump, and not a furnace. All of these discoveries flew in the face of the classical writings, and showed that the ‘moderns’ might well know more than the ‘ancients’. None of these discoveries, moreover, were the fruits of speculative philosophies; they were physical discoveries. Passive observation could classify, but experiment could break into realms of new knowledge. In the words of Sir Francis Bacon, who more than anyone else championed the cause of experiment, and whose writings directly inspired Robert Hooke and the early Fellows of the Royal Society, nature must be ‘put to the torture’, and made to yield its reluctant secrets to the astute investigator. It was not
for nothing that Bacon’s distinguished legal career took place in one of the most sanguinary periods of English constitutional history! And as the judicial inquisitor needed his special tools of assault and persuasion to make his victim speak, so the scientific experimentalist needed his, for the laboratory - which included the newly invented telescope, microscope, airpump, thermometer, and many other instruments that refined the perceptionswas the torture chamber wherein longsecretive nature would be cross-examined. The radical reappraisal of how nature worked that was taking place in the early seventeenth century was also rich in perceived religious implications. Far from being persecuted by the Church, indeed, we must not forget that the Scientific Revolution was seen as fulfilling Old Testament prophecies. Hooke expressed the prophetic character of the New Science very succinctly in the Preface to Micrographia in 1665: And as at first, mankind fell by tasting of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge, so we, their Posterity, may be in part restor’d by the same way, not only by beholding and contemplating, but by tasting too those fruits of Natural Knowledge, that were never yet forbidden. In the spirit of Bacon’s and the Royal Society’s motto, Nullius in Verba, it was not only to be by passive word-exercises that mankind would reach a profounder understanding of the Divine Creation, but also by experiment and action. Yet this new mastery of nature to which the age was
laying claim had a darker (or more ecstatic) dimension, depending on one’s perspective. After the Fall of Mankind as a result of excessive curiosity, as recounted in Genesis, humanity had been bounded within a fixed scheme of knowledge, though ancient prophecies had indicated that new enlightenment would come to man shortly before the end of the world. Many seventeenth-century scholars had computed from the prophetic books of the Bible that Armageddon was now at hand, and no prophecy fitted the age better than that from the Book of Daniel, XII. 4: Many shall run to and fro, and Knowledge shall be increased. The geographical discoveries, the religious wars of the Reformation, numerous new inventions, supernovae, Jupiter’s moons, the execution of King Charles I, the discovery of the microscopic realm and of the vacuum, and the refutation of the truths of Aristotle’s science: all were clear fulfilments of Daniel’s and many similar prophecies. The search for religious meaning lay at the heart of seventeenth-century intellectual culture, and to dismiss it from our understanding of their science produces a picture as lopsided as that which would result if a historian in 300 years’ time wrote of the twentieth century in a way that dismissed the significance of economics.
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Robert Hooke's scientific ideas Allen Chapman Lecture given to the Royal Society London, 1997
Mid-seventeenth-century Europe was a veritable market-place of competing philosophies of nature in the wake of the confusion that followed the eclipse of Aristotelianism. Though historians of science generally speak of the rise of the ‘mechanical philosophy’ at this period, one should remember that this is a portmanteau designation for several quite distinct ‘systems’ that shared the speculative premise that energy was transmitted by particulate collision. The most uncompromising of mechanists was Thomas Hobbes (better known today as a political philosopher) who argued that matter and the laws of motion could be made to explain everything, from celestial mechanics to the appearance of ghosts. Rene Descartes saw all physical, but not spiritual, phenomena as occasioned by an endlessly agitated aether, the vortices and swirls of which carried along the particles that produced physical motion. Pierre Gassendi revived the once-called Godless doctrine of atomism, and conceived of matter in terms of the geometrical arrangement of fundamental particles guided by the hand of God. And especially popular in England
Hooke's scientific ideas
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were the ideas of Francis Bacon, which were concerned less with the inner-most structures of matter in motion and more with developing the correct experimental method and arranging the results into taxonomic schemes. Robert Boyle, in his chemical investigations, was drawn to a Christianized version of the atomic theory, where the geometrical arrangement of the atoms defined the chemical characteristics of the substance. And as a Baconian, Boyle devised meticulous courses of experiments by which he hoped to test these ideas. As Boyle’s assistant, one can expect Robert Hooke to have been influenced by his master’s ideas, though there are important points of divergence. While it goes without saying that Hooke was an experimentalist in the Baconian tradition, it is obvious to anyone who reads Hooke’s writings that he was no methodological purist. As every modern scientist now knows, no original investigator can be the rigid adherent of a pre-determined method, for creativity in science is more than recipefollowing. Robert Boyle, and Robert Hooke, however, were probably the first scientists to encounter this fact of life, for while they were not the first men to perform experiments, they were the first to undertake whole courses of experiments and, in Hooke’s case, conduct
them in disciplines as diverse as physics and physiology. Micrographia, which published the results of a series of observations and experiments conducted between 1661 and 1664, should be required reading for every science undergraduate, for it amply demonstrates how brilliantly eclectic, yet how tightly controlled, a series of physical investigations can be. It showed how the microscopical examination of ice crystals could lead to a discussion of atomic structures; how the first recognition of the cellular structure of wood initiated research into the role of air in combustion; and how the anatomical description of a fly developed into an experimental essay in aerodynamics, acoustics, and wave-patterns. In published researches covering nearly forty years, Hooke was constantly casting around for a consistent, underlying principle that could be shown to bind the whole of nature together: a ‘Grand Unified Theory’, as it were. That nature did contain common lucid principles would have been taken as axiomatic by Hooke, for as the entire universe was the product of divine intelligence, it was inconceivable that God could be inconsistent in His grand design. And as human intelligence was congruent with that of God, it stood to reason that the key should be within man’s reach. As Kepler had said, 'science
“ …creativity in science is more than just recipe following”
was thinking God’s thoughts after Him'. Though Robert Hooke never came up with a Grand Unified Theory that could be made to stand experimentally in all cases, one can extract a series of principles which run as a thread through his thought. One of these was a version of the atomic theory of matter, though he was careful not to push it too far, for lack of clear experimental evidence. Yet Hooke’s atomism is more dynamic and rooted in motion than that of his master. Boyle, as we have seen, held to a broadly geometrical concept of atomic arrangement, whereas Hooke’s was more kinematic and based on energy, or pressure, constantly exciting a medium so that the atoms became the efficient causes of all things. And when one came to the medium, or aether, in which the atoms were suspended and through which they received their powers of impulse, Hooke seems to have held different ideas at different times, depending on the results of particular researchers. Was the aether itself a ‘stagnant’, passive agent through which atomic collisions took place (in the way that railway lines are passive agents down which colliding waggons move), or was it the aether that originated the motion? Hooke considered that the primary forces of nature, such as light, magnetism, and gravity,
might act through aethers, or parts of the aether, that were peculiar to themselves. As a mechanist, Hooke needed a medium of some sort if a cause were to produce an effect, for without a physical connecting agent, no matter how tenuous, one was no better off than the magicians who happily explained cause and effect by means of occult sympathies. One fundamental way in which Hooke differs from modern (or post-Newtonian) scientists is in his concern with active principles and connecting mediums, for like most other seventeenth-century researchers, he was still a ‘philosopher’ who was interested in the causes of things. Though he, like Boyle, Descartes and Gassendi, had abandoned the Greek qualitative approach to nature, in favour of a mechanical, quantitative approach, his thought processes were still haunted by the sources of cause and effect, albeit redressed in mechanical garb. It took Newton and the scientists of the eighteenth century to bequeath causes to the metaphysicians, and concentrate on expressing the nature of effects in precise mathematical terms. If there were one single mechanical principle which Hooke saw as present in most parts of physical nature, it was vibration. In many branches of research, he saw vibration as the thing which moved from an active
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Hooke's scientific ideas
“ The next care, to be taken, in respect of the senses, is a supplying of their infirmities with Instruments, and, as it were, the adding of artificial Organs to the natural.”
source, through its appropriate aether, to produce a measurable effect. We will return to Hooke and vibration when looking at his work on spring and the elasticity of bodies. Though Hooke might have been happy to entertain the presence and characters of atoms and aether when speculating about an ultimate metaphysic for science, he had a clear understanding of what had made the scientific discoveries of the age possible: an enhanced ability to perceive and quantify nature by means of instruments. It is in the long Preface to Micrographia in 1665 that he sets out most clearly his scientific manifesto and speaks of instruments as devices which lend new investigative power to relatively imprecise human sense-perception: 'The next care to be taken, in respect of the Senses, is a supplying of their infirmities with Instruments, and, as it were, the adding of artificial Organs to the natural.' In his stress on the primacy of the senses in all perceptions of nature, from everyday experience to sophisticated research, Robert Hooke became one of the founders of the British empirical tradition and an influence on
figures like John Locke. Hooke, moreover, did not merely talk about sense-knowledge, but made it the very king-pin of his experimental technique, realizing that, if one were going to investigate the ‘animalcules’ in water, the surface of the moon, or the vacuum, then the senses would need artificial enhancement by means of instruments. The invention and use of instruments, indeed, runs through his entire career, from his first devising of an airpump for Boyle in 1659 to his last recorded scientific utterance in December 1702, when, according to the Posthumous Works, he tried to devise an improved instrument to measure the horizontal solar diameter, ‘but discovers not the way’. It is true that Aristotle had placed an emphasis on the senses when examining natural phenomena, but to him the reality of a thing was defined in the totality of its parts as perceived by the gross senses. But what the new, instrumentbased, experimentalists introduced into sensory perception were new options whereby a scientific reality could be defined. Was the correct definition of a horse that of a large quadruped, or was it the mechanics of its skeleton and muscles, its heart-rate related to
body weight, or particular characteristics of cells and blood as seen under the microscope? Having looked at the principles that underlay Hooke’s scientific thought and approach to knowledge, it is now time to examine some of his researches in more detail.
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Robert Hooke’s Research Microscopy Allen Chapman Lecture given to the Royal Society London, 1997
The microscope was invented some thirty years before Robert Hooke was born. The Yorkshire scientist Henry Power had published microscopical observations before Hooke, and in 1661, Marcello Malphigi had used the instrument to provide clinching evidence in
“ …the microscope revealed an organized realm of nature that was as diverse in its structures and as vast in its scale as the telescopic universe” favour of Harvey’s theory of blood circulation when he discovered the capillary vessels in the lungs of a frog. Yet for over half a century after its invention, the microscope had been a poor relation to the telescope in terms of its ability to produce fundamental scientific discoveries. Not until Robert Hooke published his own microscopical researches, in 1665, was it made manifest to the scientific world that the microscope revealed an organized realm of nature that was as diverse in its structures and as vast in its scale as the telescopic universe. For centuries, indeed, and long before the invention
“ That a flea could be depicted with the anatomical precision of a rhinoceros was quite shocking, and one wonders how many nightmares were occasioned by Micrographia in that unbathed age” of the telescope, philosophers had speculated about the vastness of space, though no one had thought seriously about the existence of living creatures that were smaller than cheese-mites or inanimate objects smaller than dust particles. It is true that the atomists had conjectured about the existence of the minuscule particles that composed matter, but these had been objects of a philosophical character, which held out no hope of physical detection. When Hooke’s Micrographia first appeared in the bookshops in January 1665 at a lavish thirty shillings per copy, therefore, it had a quite sensational impact. It bowled Samuel Pepys right over and transfixed him in his chair until two o’clock in the morning; ‘the most ingenious booke that ever I read in my life’. More than anything else, it whetted Pepys’s appetite for the New Science. He subsequently bought instruments, joined the Royal Society in February 1665, and in 1684 became its President. Micrographia was one of the formative books of the modern world, and like all influential pieces of writing, was capable of triggering responses on many different levels of understanding. Within the scientific community, it provided
one of the most articulate and beautifully presented justifications for experimental science ever produced. Mere observation, after all, could take one no further than Aristotle had gone in his descriptions of animals and natural forces, but when observation was refined by means of specially designed instruments, and used to ‘put nature to the torture’ in a context of addressed questions, then remarkable discoveries could be made. Micrographia not only provided a wealth of new data for science to consider, but showed how experimental investigations could be built upon them. A seemingly simple observation of a piece of charcoal under the microscope, for instance, could lead to a recognition of the presence of cells, to an investigation into burning, and to Hooke’s work on the dissolving properties of aerial nitre. None of the Observations in Micrographia are simple; all of them are detailed starting-points for further physical investigations in one way or another. Hooke showed that sense knowledge could be reliable when used within the correct disciplinary restraints, and what the body could physically perceive via its ‘artificial Organs’ left little doubt
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that the experimental method actually worked. If Micrographia was so important within the scientific community, it must be remembered that its influence on the cultured laity, like Pepys, was equally profound. The book was written in an easy style that would have been accessible to any innumerate who could read Shakespeare or the Bible, for Hooke could write vivid and powerful prose. It was, moreover, the first proper picture-book of science to come off the presses, for its sixty Observations were accompanied by fifty-eight beautiful engravings of the objects seen beneath the microscope. Hooke’s artistic gifts had been essential to Micrographia, for only a man who could faithfully interpret and delineate the awkward images that were produced by the compound microscopes of the 1660s could envisage such a book in the first place. Modern science is replete with visual images, and the televisual image is the most powerful medium through which its ideas are now communicated to the lay public. We must not forget that this tradition of visual communication largely begins with Hooke’s Micrographia. Part of the popular fascination of Micrographia lay in the arresting new perspective that it cast on to common and familiar objects: a fine needle point looked like a rough carrot (Observation 1), delicate silk looked like basket-work (Observation 4), and extinguished sparks resembled lumps of coal (Observation 8). But it was the observations of moulds of various kinds, ‘Eels in Vinegar’, and of insects that were the most sensational
(Observations 53 and 54). That a flea could be depicted with the anatomical precision of a rhinoceros was quite shocking, and one wonders how many nightmares were occasioned by Micrographia in that unbathed age. In the late twentieth century we have become blasé about the impact of scientific discovery, generally communicated by means of visual images, and it is hard for us to imagine the fascination value of a book like Micrographia, which opened up a hitherto invisible universe to the reading public. One of the hallmarks of an outstanding scientific discovery in our own time – from black holes to DNA – is its influence on popular entertainment. Micrographia influenced the creative imagination of the Restoration in a variety of ways, but nowhere more embarrassingly, for Hooke, than in Thomas Shadwell’s box-office success The Virtuoso, 1676. This play used the recently published discoveries and activities of the Royal Society to provide part of the plot motive and a main ingredient of the comedy in this farce of duplicity, seduction, and experimental philosophy. The butt of most of the jokes was Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, a foolish amateur scientist, or Virtuoso, who wasted his energies and fortune on seemingly absurd enterprises. Sir Nicholas ‘spent two thousand pounds on microscopes to find out the nature of eels in vinegar, mites in cheese, and the blue of plums which he has subtly found out to be living creatures’. On 25 May, Hooke was told about The Virtuoso, then recorded in his Diary, on 2 June 1676, ‘With Godfrey and Tompion at Play. Met Oliver there. Damned Doggs. People almost
Observation 26 Of the Structure and motion of the Wings of Flies
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“…no one had thought seriously about the existence of living creatures that were smaller than cheesemites or inanimate objects smaller than dust particles”
pointed.’ Such was the price of scientific fame. Micrographia, therefore, was far more than a collection of careful observations made, as the title said, ‘by the aid of magnifying glasses’. It was one of the first fruits of the new science to strike deep into the non-scientific imagination, and show how a cardboard tube containing two lenses could produce images of a vast new realm of knowledge. And when this realm was communicated through the medium of clear English and beautiful engravings, it could keep senior civil servants from their beds, and provide material for popular plays. Second only to Newton’s Principia, which was a very different type of book that was published twenty-two years later, Micrographia was one of the formative books of the age, and assured Robert Hooke’s reputation as a scientist of genius.
→ Allen Chapman
Observing the impact that Hooke's detailed scientific illustrations of a previously unimagined microscopic world must have had for 17th century readers
How many nightmares were ↙ occasioned in that ↙ unbathed age?
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Bogong Moth Ahmad Fauzan, Nikon Small World Photography Competition 2020
A brief survey of the impact of microscopy in science today Terence Allen Microscopy – A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2015
almost every aspect of our day-to-day existence
has been influenced by microscopy. Any attempt to cover everything would fill this entire book, so this chapter is consequently an eclectic selection. Some indication of the universality of microscopy is to view the list of applications in a manufacturer’s website. Biomedical applications alone range from bacteriology through pathology to toxicology and neuroscience. In material science, metallurgical microscopes are a major category, and there is an ever increasing requirement for microscopy in both research and quality control of microelectronics and mechanical microsystems. Nanotechnology could be considered an area almost completely dependent on microscopy for its visualization. Amongst the rest of the world of microscopy in general, the following are a few selections, plucked at random amongst a subject which could easily fill this volume and several others.
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Microscopy in forensic investigation Microscopy in forensic investigation is essentially the search for, and identification of, fragments which may be crucial to a chain of evidence (see Forensic Science VSI by Jim Fraser). A crucial element is gunshot residue (GSR), which occurs when a firearm is discharged, as it is deposited on the hands and clothing, consisting of unburnt particles of the explosive charge, along with fragments from the bullet and cartridge case. GSR is deposited up to one and a half metres from the point at which the gun was fired. Particles of GSR vary between 1 micrometre to 20 micrometres, and are identified with a scanning electron microscope which incorporates energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy for elemental chemical characterization (usually lead, antimony, and barium). This information does not match GSR to a specific gun, however; that depends on ballistic fingerprinting, performed in a special comparison light microscope, in which two bullets can be examined side by side. Other essentials of forensic investigation such as paint analysis are usually carried out by light microscopy (possibly extended to the scanning EM). Sophisticated light stereozoom instruments are used for fibre identification and matching paper fragments. Although there are many other aspects to forensic science, microscopy is at the forefront. Microscopy in art history - finding the original Four virtually identical copies of a 16th century painting of ‘Christ Driving the Traders from
the Temple’ are in galleries in Europe. They are in the style of Hieronymus Bosch or Pieter Bruegel, but their relative history and which was the original had never been established. An interdisciplinary research project was started in 2009, using microscopy to characterize the pigments used, how they were ground, and then applied to the wood panels. Crosssections through an area of a blue garment were compared by polarizing microscopy to show the distribution of azurite and lead white particles. As well as polarizing microscopy, stereomicroscopy was used to analyse the brushwork, along with digital X-radiography and dendrochronology (tree ring analysis of the wood on which they were painted). The analysis revealed that the earliest painting was from 1530, and that the version in Glasgow, signed by Hieronymus Bosch, appears to have been painted eighty years after his death. All seem to reflect the desire for paintings at the time, when it was normal for copies of paintings to be made, to fulfil the demand, in this case, from the Antwerp art market. Microscopy is also a major analytical technique for antique papers and books, glass, ceramics, and stone, as well as minerals and fossils, and throughout art conservation in general. Microscopy in environmental sciences and mining Environmental science involves multiple disciplines, from geology, biology, and ecology to toxicology, climatic, and atmospheric studies. Monitoring of the atmosphere, soil,
and water systems, as well as changes in flora and fauna, indicates environmental alteration, and also the presence of unacceptable contaminants, such as the identification of asbestos in older buildings. Despite Pliny the Younger noting the poor health of slaves in asbestos mines some 2,000 years ago, asbestos dust was only banned from workplaces in Britain in 1898. Asbestos is established as a cause of respiratory disease and lung cancer, including a rare and intractable condition termed mesothelioma. Asbestos has been in such widespread use that it can turn up in any building, and requires identification before suitable disposal can take place. Light microscopy was used to identify asbestos fibre sizes down to 1 micrometre in diameter, but when electron microscopy was first used, many classes of smaller fibres were discovered. The crystalline structure of the different types of asbestos fibres is characterized using polarized and phase contrast light microscopy, which can be performed on site, to trigger suitable precautions in the removal of suspicious insulation material. Several other asbestos identification methods have been tried, but only microscopy has proved sufficiently reliable. The source of energy in fossil fuels comes from plant material laid down in coal and oil bearing rocks over geological time scales. Reservoir rocks such as shale and sandstone contain trapped oil and gas between the grains of rock, clays, and other materials. In order to assess the potential yield, rock samples are examined by light microscopy
(also possibly extended to scanning EM) for their pore size, and the interconnections between pores. In the exploration of coal, the reflectance of an organic component called vitrinite (which gives coal its shiny appearance) is measured by light microscopy over individual particles to assess the thermal maturity or quality of a particular coal. Extraction of iron is usually from deposits in which there is a mixture of iron ore (haematite and magnetite) and worthless material known as gangue. Here both reflected and polarized light microscopy is used for classification, and also scanning EM for mineral analysis. Recent advances in backscattered electron sensitivity can separate haematite from magnetite. Reflected light and polarizing light microscopy are also routine tools in the mining of copper, whereas scanning EM with elemental analysis is routine in the extraction of platinum group metals. The search for diamond bearing kimberlite, which comes from deep in the earth, begins with the analysis of hundreds of field samples for garnet, olivine, and crustal xenoliths (rock fragments found enveloped in larger rocks), which indicate geological conditions likely to have produced diamonds. Automated scanning EM with elemental analysis for particular ratios of magnesium and chromium produce data indicating the best statistical probability of areas in a chosen site. Microscopy in manufacturing In large scale manufacturing, microscopy is still an absolute requirement, even if it is not
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for the inspection of the parts themselves. The requirement for cleanliness in the automotive industry is crucial to reliability, particularly when components are sourced from different suppliers, and cannot be checked once they are installed. In order to check for cleanliness, the finished parts are washed or rinsed, and the liquid filtered to collect any contaminating particles. This process is known as residual dirt analysis, with the last stage being the microscopic examination of the filter itself. This is performed using a light microscope with a specialized scanning stage and digital camera, together with a computer and analytical software which measures the size and number of dirt particles on the filter, which are all displayed automatically on the monitor. Not only are the particles measured down to 5 micrometres, but they are also checked to ascertain if they are reflective (i.e. metallic) or non reflective (plastic), to produce a score for damage potential. The requirement for this type of quality control in manufacturing industries across the board has led many microscope producers to offer off the shelf ‘cleanliness analysis’ systems. Microscopy in food and drugs In food science, the identification of bacteria, both desirable (bionic yogurts) and undesirable (contaminated and/or infectious), is assayed with routine light microscopy and specific staining protocols. Once food is produced, there may be various times of storage, during which polarization microscopy is used to detect the formation of crystals, or the breakdown of the
structure of emulsions. The role of microscopy in the discovery and subsequent production of drugs involves a battery of sophisticated microscopical approaches. More than 70 per cent of potential new drugs fail the ‘ADME Tox’ barrier (in that they are unsatisfactory for absorption, distribution, metabolism, excretion, and toxicology). Light microscopy, particularly fluorescence, where multiple probes can be incorporated, is crucial to show sites of drug binding, drug uptake, and morphological effects. Time lapse imaging can show longer term behavioural responses, and all results are collected using computer controlled image capture for high throughput analysis. Both transmission and scanning EM are routine, particularly for analysis of organelles within the cell such as mitochondria, to visualize membrane alterations which precede cell death. Once a drug has been found to have suitable activity, an optimal delivery strategy must be found. It will be combined with excipients (a mixture of diluents, binders, solubilizers, and disintegrants). Polarized light microscopy is routine to monitor physiochemical properties, using characteristic refractive indices and birefringence endpoints. Liposomal encapsulation of drugs with membranes of phospholipid molecules which mimic the naturally occurring boundaries of cells protects active compounds against the effects of stomach acid so that they can reach the desired target within the body, and be released with maximum efficacy. Liposomal manufacture requires microscopic sizing, with sizes
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controlled to between 50 and 500 nanometres. Other advanced drug delivery systems, such as controlled release, are monitored throughout their production by microscopy.
Microscopy and the weather The advent of low temperature scanning EM led to a study by Bill Wergin and colleagues from NASA in which they collected samples from different types of snow cover found in the prairies, taiga (snow forest), and alpine environments. With snow depths up to a metre, various layers occurred in which the crystals underwent a change in their microscopic shape from the original freshly fallen crystals, to the development of flat faces and sharp edges. It is this metamorphosis of lying snow that determines the likelihood of avalanches, which can be predicted from the crystal structures at various depths. Although scanning EM is hardly available as a routine assay in distant mountain regions, this work helped in the use of microwave radiology investigation of the snow water equivalent in the snow pack, as large snow crystals scatter passive microwave more than small crystals. Smaller and more rounded crystals of snow do not interlock, and can slide more easily over each other, increasing the risk of avalanches. The origami microscope More than a billion people in less developed countries suffer from conditions such as malaria (which kills one million a year), sleeping sickness, schistosomiasis, and chagas disease, all of
which need to be diagnosed by basic light microscopy, but are rarely identified on site due to lack of expertise and facilities. In 2012, Manu Prakash, an assistant professor from Stanford University, produced an A4 sheet of thin card onto which were incorporated all aspects of a simple but extremely effective microscope, which can be viewed directly, or even act as projection microscope for group viewing. The images produced are of good quality, and adequate to diagnose the presence of the disease causing microbes of giardiasis or leishmaniasis. The flat packed ‘foldscope’ can be assembled in minutes, has no mechanical moving parts (focus is optimized by gently flexing the whole system), and if used for diagnosis of an infectious disease, it can be incinerated after use, as the total cost is around 50 cents. Samples are mounted on a 3 by 1 inch glass slide (a universal standard) which is slid between the lenses and an illuminating LED incorporated into the card together with its button battery. The foldscope can survive being stepped on, and/or dropped from a five storey building. Perhaps the most novel aspect is the use of spherical glass lenses (at 17 cents each) about the size of a poppy seed, which were originally mass produced as an abrasive grit. The spherical nature of the lenses, which requires the eye to be placed close, can produce magnifications of below 100 up to 2,000 times, without the need for immersion oil (seriously reminiscent of the instruments of Antoni van Leeuwenhoek). Even fluorescence microscopy
can be incorporated by the use of a coloured LED illuminator and 3 mm square filter inserts, keeping the cost down. The foldscope can also be coupled to a conventional smartphone for image capture, and their transmission worldwide (telemicroscopy), allowing remote live video consultation for expert diagnostic opinion if required. To quote the last sentence of the original paper, ‘Our long term vision is to universalise frugal science, using this platform to bring microscopy to the masses.’ At one end of the scale, astronomers search the heavens for new information about the universe, whilst at the other end, microscopists chase atoms and molecules to study defects in crystals or the basic processes of life. These investigations may be separated by more than twenty-fold orders of magnitude, but are nevertheless driven by the same insatiable curiosity of the human psyche to explore beyond the vision of our own eyes.
Foldscope An optical microscope that can be assembled from simple components, including a sheet of paper and a lens.
Cells are the basic unit of life — and were first observed by Hooke in Micrographia. Here are just a few of their fascinating facts:
Cells By the Number: Facts about the building blocks of life
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Outsized influence — Chindima Okparanta 2014
cells that can stretch from our hips to our toes, sending electrical signals throughout the body.
This is the diameter in centimeters of most animal cells, making them invisible to the naked eye. There are some exceptions, such as nerve
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that do not have a nucleus or other internal structures called organelles. Bacteria are prokaryotes, while human cells are eukaryotes.
That’s how many years ago scientists believe the first known cells originated on Earth. These were prokaryotes, single-celled organisms
.8 billio .001 0.003 Hooke's Micrographia
Believe it or not, that’s the approximate number of pounds of bacteria you’re carrying around, depending on your size. Even though bacterial cells greatly outnumber ours, they’re
That’s how many different types of cells are in the human body, including those in our skin, muscles, nerves, intestines, blood and bones.
In that year, British scientist Robert Hooke coined the term cell to describe the porous, grid-like structure he saw when viewing a thin slice of cork under a microscope. Today, scientists study cells
much smaller than our cells and therefore account for less than 3 percent of our body mass. Scientists are learning more about how our body bacteria contribute to our health.
using a variety of high-tech imaging equipment as well as rainbow-colored dyes and a green fluorescent protein derived from jellyfish.
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Outsized influence — Chindima Okparanta 2014
role. Those that die in the largest numbers are skin cells, blood cells and some cells that line structures like organs and glands.
Each day, approximately this many cells die in the human body as part of a normal process that serves a healthy and protective
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for some skin cells to as long as the life of the organism for healthy neurons.
That’s the approximate lifespan in days of a human red blood cell. Other cell types have different lifespans, from a few weeks
20 0—70 Hooke's Micrographia
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Micro waste, monumental disaster
Plastic is falling from the sky
Clothing microfibers in the ocean
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Atmospheric plastic Sanka Vidamgama / Getty Images
Micro waste, monumental disaster 02
Tiny bits of plastic are swirling in the sky, subtly affecting the climate. Matt Simon Wired Magazine, May 2020
like the ash spewed from a super-volcano,
microplastics have infested the atmosphere and encircled the globe. These are bits of plastic less than 5 millimeters long, and they come in two main varieties. Fragments spawn from disintegrating bags and bottles (babies drink millions of tiny particles a day in their formula), and microfibers tear loose from synthetic clothing in the wash and flush out to sea. Winds then scour land and ocean, carrying microplastics high into the atmosphere. The air is so lousy with the stuff that each year, the equivalent of over 120 million plastic bottles fall on 11 protected areas in the US, which account for just 6 percent of the country’s total area. In a study published today in the journal Nature, scientists have taken a first swing at modeling how the atmospheric particles could be influencing the climate, and it’s a strange mix of good news and bad. The good news is that microplastics may be reflecting a tiny
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“ …each microplastic particle grows a unique ‘plastisphere’ of bacteria, viruses, and algae.”
bit of the sun’s energy back into space, which would actually cool the climate ever so slightly. The bad news is that humanity is loading the environment with so much microplastic (ocean sediment samples show that concentrations have been doubling every 15 years since the 1940s), and the particles themselves are so varied, that it’s hard to know how the pollutant will ultimately influence the climate. At some point they may end up heating the planet. Earth absorbs some of the sun’s energy while also reflecting some of it, an exchange known as radiative forcing. Like other aerosols in the atmosphere, such as dust and ash, microplastics interact with this energy, the modeling found. “They're very good at scattering sunlight back to space, so we see that cooling influence coming through,” says atmospheric chemist Laura Revell, lead author of the new paper. “But they are also pretty good at absorbing the radiation emitted by the Earth, which means that they can contribute to the greenhouse effect in a very small way.” Like snowflakes, no two microplastics are alike—they’re made of many different polymers, and they come in a rainbow of colors. Fragments chip away as they tumble around the environment, while fibers split over and over again. And each particle grows a unique “plastisphere” of bacteria, viruses, and algae.
So when Revell and her colleagues set out to build a model of how they affect the climate, they knew it would be impossible to represent so much diversity. Instead, they determined the general optical properties of fibers and fragments as two main groups—for instance, how well they’d reflect or absorb the sun’s energy. They based their model on pure polymers without pigments, and assumed an atmospheric composition of 100 particles per cubic meter of air. The researchers then plugged all this into an existing climate model, which told them the estimated effect that atmospheric microplastics would have on the climate. The current net effect is basically a wash, they found. The slight cooling caused by reflection would pretty much cancel out the slight warming caused by absorbing the sun’s radiation. They didn’t translate this into a potential temperature change for the climate overall. The Earth may actually get more cooling from dust in the atmosphere. If you’ve heard of solar geo-engineering, it’s the same principle: Planes spray aerosols, which bounce the sun’s energy back into space. Oddly enough, cargo ships do it too, albeit inadvertently: The clouds of pollution they spew both contribute to global warming and act as light-reflecting clouds. “I want to emphasize that this is not a good thing, though,” says Revell of the slight cooling effect. First of all, microplastic is its own danger to
ecosystems—and our own bodies. And second, color is one of the limitations of such an early model. While the researchers based their model on non-pigmented particles, microplastics come in a wide range of hues, clothing microfibers in particular. Color will have a significant influence on potential radiative forcing: Darker hues absorb more energy, while lighter colors reflect more. Once the colors of the particles are factored into future models, scientists may find they are actually likely to lead to warming. At present, there’s just no way of knowing how many particles of what color are swirling in the atmosphere. Plus, the microbes that grow on the particles might change their reflectivity, as well. This new modeling is the beginning of the marriage of climate science and microplastic science. “This is an interesting first study on the direct radiative forcing of atmospheric microplastics,” says Cornell University atmospheric scientist Natalie Mahowald, who has modeled microplastics in the atmosphere. “The results are likely to be very sensitive to the assumptions about the size, distribution, as well as the color of the microplastics.”
As Mahowold points out, distribution is another complicating factor for this early model. Scientists can take air samples and characterize the microplastics they snag, but those represent just a blip in a massive atmosphere—plus, the population of microplastics at 100 feet off the ground might be way different than at 1,000 feet. Smaller plastics, for instance, might loft higher. Revell and her colleagues also used a set concentration—100 particles per cubic meter of air—whereas scientists are getting wildly different counts as they’re sampling around the world. Over the ocean, plastic concentration might be less than one particle per cubic meter, but above Beijing it’s 5,600, and above London it’s 2,500. And then there are the nanoplastics, which are smaller than a millionth of a meter, the product of larger bits degrading until they finally reach the nano realm. Very few scientists have the equipment and expertise required to sample for nanoplastics, but one team working in the remote Alps found that a minimum of 200 billion particles fell on a single square meter of a mountain each week. The
“…the equivalent of over 120 million plastic bottles fall on 11 protected areas in the US.”
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atmosphere is positively teeming with plastic particles—yet scientists can’t detect them all. But there’s an indication in the new model that the presence of so many pollutants is doing something to the climate, and one area of speculation is whether they are influencing cloud formation. A cloud forms when water gloms onto particulate matter like dust. What if atmospheric microplastics are actually acting as additional nuclei? In the lab, at least, scientists have watched the particles gather ice in special chambers that replicate atmospheric conditions. “This would then be a really fascinating pathway, if microplastics were behaving in this manner and contributing to clouds, just because clouds have such huge effects themselves on the energy balance and on the climate system,” says Revell. Bigger, brighter clouds bounce more of the sun’s radiation back into space, so this is one way that the pollutants could deflect energy. Revell will be doing more sampling of atmospheric microplastics to feed more data into her modeling. And it's very likely that over time, there will only be more plastic to sample. “Unless we really make some huge changes to how we're dealing with microplastic pollution, and our rates of plastic production and our waste management practices, then we just expect that plastics are going to continue to fragment out there in the environment,” says Revell. “They'll be producing more microplastics. And those microplastics will be able to be picked up by winds and carried around and exert a large influence on the climate.”
Plastisphere Like snowflakes, no two microplastics are alike—they’re made of many different polymers, and they come in a rainbow of colors. Fragments chip away as they tumble around the environment, while fibers split over and over again. And each particle grows a unique “plastisphere” of bacteria, viruses, and algae.
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Microplastic pollution & atmospheric influence Planes and cargo ships spray aerosols containing microplastic particles which causes atmospheric pollution. Inadvertently, this creates microplastic clouds which reflect the sun's energy back into space. These clouds contribute to a slight cooling effect due to the hue of the microplastics reflecting more light. The slight global cooling effect is offset by the damage these microplastics cause to both natural ecosystems and our own health.
1,000 feet Microplastics at higher altitudes are smaller in size Microplastic clouds formed from pollution from cargo ships and planes
100,000,000 Plastic particle matter over Atlantic Ocean
Nanoplastics and nanoparticles Nanoplastics are defined as those particles that are smaller than a millionth of a meter, and are the product of microplastics breaking down and degrading.
200 billion One team working in the remote Alps found that a minimum of 200 billion particles fell on a single square meter of a mountain each week.
7 trillion A total of 7 trillion microplastic particles wash into San Francisco Bay each year, mostly coming from rubber particles from tires.
150,000,000 Plastic particle matter over Beijing
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Mike Kemp Getty Images
Plastic is falling from the sky 02
New modeling shows the surprising sources of the nefarious pollutant. Matt Simon Wired Magazine, May 2020
at any given time,
1,100 tons of microplastic If you find yourself in some secluded spot in the American West—maybe Yellowstone, or the deserts of Utah, or the forests of Oregon—take a deep breath and get some fresh air along with some microplastic. According to new modeling, 1,100 tons of it is currently floating above the western US. The stuff is falling out of the sky, tainting the most remote corners of North America—and the world. As I’ve said before, plastic rain is the new acid rain. But where is it all coming from? You’d think it’d be arising from nearby cities— western metropolises like Denver and Salt Lake City. But new modeling published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that 84 percent of airborne microplastics in the American West actually comes from the roads outside of major cities. Another 11 percent could be are floating over the western us.
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blowing all the way in from the ocean. (The researchers who built the model reckon that microplastic particles stay airborne for nearly a week, and that’s more than enough time for them to cross continents and oceans.) Microplastics—particles smaller than 5 millimeters—come from a number of sources. Plastic bags and bottles released into the environment break down into smaller and smaller bits. Your washing machine is another major source: When you launder synthetic clothing, tiny microfibers slough off and get flushed to a wastewater treatment plant. That facility filters out some of the microfibers, trapping them in “sludge,” the treated human waste that’s then applied to agricultural fields as fertilizer. That loads the soil with microplastic. A wastewater plant will then flush the remaining microfibers out to sea in the treated water. This has been happening for decades, and because plastics disintegrate but don’t ever really disappear, the amount in the ocean has been skyrocketing. In fact, this new research shows there may now be more microplastic blowing out of the ocean at any given time than there is going into it. Put another way: So much has accumulated in the ocean that the land may now be a net importer of microplastic from the sea. “That's really highlighting the role of legacy pollution,” says Janice Brahney, an environmental scientist at Utah State University and co-lead author of the new PNAS paper. “The amount of plastics that are in our ocean is just overwhelming compared to anything that we produce in any
given year in the terrestrial environment.” These microplastics aren’t just washing ashore and accumulating on beaches. When waves crash and winds scour the ocean, they launch seawater droplets into the air. These obviously contain salt, but also organic matter and microplastics. “Then the water evaporates, and you're left just with the aerosols,” or tiny floating bits of particulate matter, says Cornell University researcher Natalie Mahowald, who co-led the work with Brahney. “Classically, we atmospheric scientists have always known that there are sea salts coming in this way,” she continues. But last year, another group of researchers demonstrated this phenomenon with microplastics, showing that they turn up in sea breezes. This time, Mahowald and Brahney thought bigger, using atmospheric models to show how far marine microplastics might travel after they take to the air. They also looked at other sources of microplastic emissions, like roads, cities, and agricultural fields. They knew, for instance, how much dust is generated from fields and how much microplastic might be in that dust. The researchers then combined this atmospheric modeling with real-world data. Brahney used air samplers scattered in remote locations throughout the American West, so at a given time she could say how many plastic particles had fallen out of the sky. Mahowald’s modeling could also say what the atmospheric and climate conditions were like at that time, allowing the researchers to trace where the particles had likely blown in from.
Plastic rain is ↙ the new acid ← rain
Matt Simon Observing how plastic rain now poses more of an existential threat to nature than acid rain has in previous years
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They found that agricultural dust only provided 5 percent of atmospheric microplastics in the West. And surprisingly, cities supplied only 0.4 percent. “If you were to ask anyone how plastics are getting into the atmosphere, they would say from urban centers,” says Brahney. “I like to think of it more as the roads that are leaving the cities that are the most important.” When a car rolls down a road, tiny flecks fly off its tires as part of normal wear and tear. This material isn’t pure rubber; it contains added synthetic rubbers and a slew of other chemicals. Tire particles, then, are technically microplastics, and they’re all over the place. One study in 2019 calculated that 7 trillion microplastics wash into San Francisco Bay each year, most of it from tires. Cities actually do produce an astonishing amount of microplastic through road traffic and from litter breaking apart, but it doesn’t seem to get high into the atmosphere. That’s for two reasons, Brahney and Mahowald think: Buildings block the wind from scrubbing the surfaces of a city and propelling those bits away, and people drive cars slower in metro areas, so there’s less agitation of tire particles that end up on the roadway. But get out onto the interstate highways and there’s a lot more open space where winds can whip up debris. Plus, says Mahowald, “cars are moving at 60 miles an hour. That's a lot of energy. And little tiny particles can get in the atmosphere with that energy.” But why did these scientists go through all the trouble of modeling the extreme complexities of the atmosphere, instead
of just looking at the characteristics of the microplastics that landed in their traps to figure out where they originated? The sad reality is that these plastics have so thoroughly saturated the environment that, in a sense, they’ve homogenized. Particles from synthetic clothing and from degrading bottles and packaging seem to be moving between the air, land, and sea with such regularity— and enough intermixing—that it’s hard to pinpoint the source of a particular polymer. “It's not quite hard—it's nearly impossible,” says University of Strathclyde microplastic researcher Deonie Allen, who wasn’t involved with this new research. (She coauthored last year’s study that documented microplastics in sea breezes.) “If you model it, you can figure out potentially where it might come from. But if you just look at the chemical signature of the types of plastics you've got in your bucket or in your filter, there's no way for you to tell where they may have come from.” Maybe if you can identify a piece of rubber, there's a good chance it came from a tire. “But the rest of them,” Allen adds, “they could come from anywhere.” That’s why atmospheric modeling is critical to better understanding how microplastics are moving between environments. Researchers are just beginning to do this—there have been only a few dozen papers so far. Yet scientists need way more data on how much plastic is falling out of the sky, and where. This new research, for instance, concentrated on the American West, but the generation and distribution of particles might work differently elsewhere. The
Western states are quite dry, so maybe it’s easier for cars to kick up microplastics there than it is in the soggy South. Also, in Europe, waste plastic is often incorporated into roads as a construction material, which is a noble idea, but it may mean that those roads shed even more plastics, mixing with the ones from tires. But bit by bit, researchers are developing a clearer picture of how these particles are cycling all over the planet. A major driver appears to be the atmospheric transport detailed in this new research. “We live on a ball inside a bubble,” says University of Strathclyde microplastic researcher Steve Allen, who wasn’t involved in the research. (He and Deonie Allen are spouses.) “There's no borders, there's no edges. And this is clearly showing that microplastic is going into the sea and back out of the sea. It's raining on the land and then getting blown back up into the air again, to move somewhere else. There's no stopping it once it's out.” “It could just be moving around the surface of the Earth endlessly,” agrees Brahney. “That's just really horrifying to think about.”
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Microplastics Courtesy of Janice Brahney
Clothing Microfibers in the Ocean 02
The Arctic Ocean is teeming with microfibers from our synthetic clothing. Matt Simon Wired Magazine, May 2020
Throw a polyester sweater in the washing machine and it’ll come out nice and clean, but also not quite its whole self. As it rinses, millions of synthetic fibers will shake loose and wash out with the waste water, which then flows to a treatment plant. Each year, a single facility might pump 21 billion of these microfibers out to sea, where they swirl in currents, settle in sediments, and end up as fish food, with untold ecological consequences. Everywhere scientists look in the world’s oceans, they’re finding microfibers, technically a subcategory of microplastics, which are defined as particles less than 5 millimeters long. And now, after making four expeditions across the Arctic Ocean, a team of scientists is reporting just how badly even these remote waters have been tainted. Sampling as deep as 1,000 meters, they found an average of 40 microplastic particles per cubic meter of water, 92 percent of which were microfibers.
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“ …humanity's addiction to synthetic clothing is corupting Earth's oceans.”
Nearly three-quarters of these were polyester, strong evidence that humanity’s addiction to synthetic clothing is corrupting Earth’s oceans. “It simply illustrates just how contaminated our planet has become with synthetic polymers,” says Peter Ross, an ocean pollution scientist and marine pollution adviser at Ocean Wise Conservation Association, a conservation NGO, and lead author on a new paper in Nature Communications describing the findings. Ross and his fellow researchers from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada took care not to sample surface waters, which tend to accumulate buoyant styrofoam and lost fishing gear. For this reason, that water is not a proper representative sample of the plastic pollution that lurks in the sea. Instead, they had to collect water from a few meters beneath the surface, and—conveniently enough—their research vessels had intakes ports situated on the bottom of their hulls. The scientists also took samples up and down the water column, as deep as 1,015 meters, from six stations in the Beaufort Sea above Alaska. They had to be sure, though, that they weren’t mistaking natural particles for synthetic ones, so they employed a forensic technique called Fourier transform infrared spectrometry, or FTIR. An instrument bombards the particles with an infrared beam, exciting
certain molecules in the sample, and analyzing the infrared signature reflected back at the detector. In this way, the scientists could not only confirm whether a particle was synthetic, but could also determine what kind of plastic it was. “Even our trained technicians in our group would often mistake these mystery particles for plastic when they are in fact something natural,” says Ross. “So the FTIR is very important to confirm that the mystery particle is plastic or not.” Particles confirmed, the team measured their lengths and diameters, which matched the known dimensions of synthetic fibers. Nearly 75 percent of the fibers were polyester, a common material in synthetic clothing, and they came in a range of colors too. “The alignment is striking,” says Ross. “All of this really does line up our concerns around the prospects of a significant role for textiles and laundry in contaminating the world's oceans.” Because the team had data from four expeditions that wandered all over the Arctic, they could compare their samples from the eastern region (above the Atlantic Ocean) to the western region (above Alaska and the Yukon). They found three times more particles in the east compared to the west. The fibers were also 50 percent longer in the east and their infrared signature more closely resembled that
of virgin polyester—indicators that these fibers were newer. “As fibers move into the Arctic or into the environment, they get weathered, they get older over time,” Ross says. “The infrared signature changes with sunlight, with chemical processes, with bacterial decomposition.” Their results showed that the weathering was more evident in fibers found in the west. So taken altogether, the scientists reckon this means that most of the particles are arriving from the east and degrading as they travel to the west. While there is some inflow of water from the Pacific Ocean into the western Arctic, it seems that far more particles are entering the eastern Arctic from the Atlantic Ocean, where inflow is greater. The microfibers swirl around for a time, aging and weathering, with many of them likely ending up in the western Arctic. The findings jibe with research published last September that found that Arctic Ocean sediments are packed with blue jean fibers washed out to sea in wastewater. Also last year, another team of scientists found that currents are transporting microplastic particles around oceans, eventually depositing them en masse in sediment “hot spots” on the seafloor.
Which is all to say: Microplastic particles and fibers are traveling vast distances. This new research not only confirms that the Arctic Ocean is teeming with the fibers, it also offers an explanation of how they’re getting there. It’s likely that wastewater treatment facilities in Europe and along the east coasts of Canada and the US are dumping untold numbers of them into the Atlantic, where currents carry the particles up to the Arctic. Air transport also probably plays a role: Scientists previously found up to 14,000 microplastic particles per liter of remote Arctic snow, and they concluded that the stuff had likely blown in from continental Europe. Researchers have also found that microplastics get transported out of the sea when waves crash and spew ocean spray loaded with particles into the air, where the tiny plastic bits can then float. "This is an important piece of work that provides a valuable data set for future microplastic research," says University of Strathclyde microplastics researcher Steve Allen, who wasn't involved in the research. "The level of detail is exceptional. Their findings
“ …It really hammers home the fact that you can't pollute in any one place and expect that it will stay there.” 67
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add a tremendous amount of weight to the discussion surrounding laundry outputs of microplastic fibers to the environment, and the need to address it quickly. It really hammers home the fact that you can't pollute in any one place and expect that it will stay there." One big remaining question is how those microplastics might be affecting the ecosystems they infest. Ocean sediments are loaded with the stuff, and scientists have already discovered that fish larvae mistake these particles for food. “We need to find out how much of this is already incorporated into the food web, which is, of course, already under threat from global climate change,” says marine ecologist Melanie Bergmann of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, who researches microplastic in the Arctic but wasn’t involved in this new work. Now, what to do about this omnipresent pollutant? It’s not likely that humanity
will instantly phase out clothing made of synthetic material. But we as consumers can demand that brands abandon fast fashion—cheaply made synthetic clothing that easily shreds into microfibers. Governments can also legislate that washing machine manufacturers add fiber-trapping filters to their products. In the meantime, you can retrofit your machine with an aftermarket filter or wash your clothes in a special bag that keeps microfibers out of wastewater. This new research adds to a growing body of evidence fingering clothing as a major source of microplastic pollution all over the planet, from the tops of remote mountains to the bottom of the sea. “It highlights once more,” says Bergmann, “that we need to tackle this issue by either reducing our usage of such textiles or improving our retention facilities and sewage treatment plants.”
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What is biomimicry?
The state of the art
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Sea urchin spines A microscopic image of the remarkable structure of sea urchin spines
Nature x Humanity 03
Biomimicry – an attempt to design according to the blueprint of nature and evolution Michael Palwyn Biomimicry in Architecture, RIBA Publishing, 2016
what do we need to do to achieve true sustainability?
Will incremental efficiency improvements and mitigation of negative impacts be enough? Or do we need to set more ambitious aims for the grand project of humanity? What I will argue in this article is that biomimicry – design inspired by the way functional challenges have been solved in biology – is one of the best sources of solutions that will allow us to create a positive future and make the shift from the industrial age to the ecological age of humankind. The latter, in my view, is not only eminently possible; we already have nearly all the solutions we need to achieve it. If biomimicry increasingly shapes the built environment – and I feel it must – then, over the next few decades, we can create cities that are healthy for their occupants and regenerative to their hinterlands, buildings that use a fraction of the resources and are a pleasure to work or live in, and infrastructure that becomes
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integrated with natural systems. Thousands of years of human culture can continue to flourish only if we can learn to live in balance with the biosphere. This is not a romantic
Nature x Humanity
“ To make the world work for a hundred percent of humanity, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”
allusion to some intangible Arcadia; what I describe in this book is a route map based on scientific rigour that can be translated by the human imagination into a tangible reality. For me, there is no better mission statement than Buckminster Fuller’s: ‘To make the world work for a hundred percent of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.’ How do we achieve this? There are, I believe, three major changes that we need to bring about: achieving radical increases in resource efficiency,shifting from a fossil fuel economy to a solar economy and transforming from a linear, wasteful way of using resources to a completely closed-loop model in which all resources are stewarded in
cycles and nothing is lost as waste. Challenging goals, but if we choose to embark on these linked journeys then there is, in my opinion, no better discipline than biomimicry to help reveal many of the solutions that we need. Biomimicry in Architecture is a book all about that rich source of solutions, and this new edition reflects the changing state of the art. Biomimicry involves learning from a source of ideas that has benefitted from a 3.8-billionyear research and development period. That source is the vast array of species that inhabit the earth and represent evolutionary success stories. Biological organisms can be seen as embodying technologies that are equivalent to those invented by humans, and in many cases have solved the same problems with a far greater economy of means. Humans have achieved some truly remarkable things, such as modern medicine and the digital revolution, but when one sees some of the extraordinary adaptations that have evolved in natural organisms, it is hard not to feel a sense of humility about how much we still have to learn. Why is now the right moment for biomimicry? While fascination with nature undoubtedly goes back as long as human existence itself, now we can revisit the advances in biology with the massive advantages of expanding scientific knowledge,
previously unimaginable digital design tools and aesthetic sensibilities that are less constrained by stylistic convention. Designers have never had such an opportunity to rethink and contribute to people’s quality of life, while simultaneously restoring our relationship with our home – the home that Buckminster Fuller called ‘spaceship earth’. It is true to say that biology proceeds by tinkering (to use Francois Jacob’s term) with what already exists, consequently producing some undeniably suboptimal solutions, whereas human invention is capable of completely original creation. The great asset that biology offers is aeons of evolutionary refinement. Biomimicry is neither thesis nor antithesis. At its best, biomimicry is a synthesis of the human potential for innovation coupled with the best that biology can offer. This synthesis exceeds the power of either alone.
This article describes the extent of solutions available in biomimicry, how architects are currently implementing those solutions, and the breadth of scale over which biomimicry is applicable.
“ …biomimicry will allow us to make the shift from the industrial age to the ecological age of humankind.”
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What is biomimicry? Michael Palwyn Biomimicry in Architecture, RIBA Publishing, 2016
Throughout history, architects have looked to nature for inspiration for building forms and approaches to decoration: nature is used mainly as an aesthetic sourcebook. Biomimicry is concerned with functional solutions, and is not necessarily an aesthetic position. The intention of this book is to study ways of translating adaptations in biology into solutions in architecture. The term ‘biomimicry’ first appeared in scientific literature in 1962, and grew in usage particularly among materials scientists in the 1980s. The term ‘biomimicry’ was preceded by ‘biomimetics’, which was first used by Otto Schmitt in the 1950s, and by ‘bionics’, which was coined by Jack Steele in 1960. There has been an enormous surge of interest during the past 15 years, driven by influential and extensively published figures like biological sciences writer Janine Benyus, Professor of Biology Steven Vogel and Professor of Biomimetics Julian Vincent. Julian Vincent defines the discipline as ‘the implementation of good design based on nature’, while for Janine Benyus it is ‘the conscious emulation of nature’s genius’. The only significant difference between ‘biomimetics’ and ‘biomimicry’ is that many users of the latter intend it to be specifically focused on developing sustainable solutions, whereas the former is
often applied to fields of endeavour such as military technology. I will be using biomimicry and biomimetics as essentially synonymous. Since the publication of the first edition of this book, definitions in this field have moved on considerably, including the use of ‘bio-inspired design’ or ‘biodesign’ rather than ‘biomimicry’ or ‘biomimetics’. ‘Biodesign’ emerged as a term partly in the medical world (inventing and implementing new biomedical technologies), partly in robotics, and partly as a broad definition (which formed the title of a book and an exhibition by William Myers11) encompassing a range of design disciplines based on biology. The point being asserted in adopting a new term is that both ‘biomimicry’ and ‘biomimetic’ imply copying, whereas ‘bioinspired’ is intended to include the potential for developing something beyond what exists in biology. I adopt the term ‘biomimicry’ because ‘bio-inspired architecture’ suggests a very broad definition – including everything from superficial mimicking of form all the way through to a scientific understanding of function and how that can inspire innovation. I find ‘bio-inspired engineering’ less problematic because ‘engineering’ implies functional rigour. No term will perfectly capture what we are doing and, as with any negotiations, it is more important to agree on common ground that unites the disciplines – being transdisciplinary, evidence-based, focused on function and directed towards delivering transformative change – rather than battling over fine
Burdock Burr Magnified view of a burdock burr, which inspired one of the best known examples of biomimicry — Velcro
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What is biomimicry?
“ Nature has benefitted from a long and ruthless process of refinement.”
distinctions that divide them. Biomimicry and biomimetics are now widely understood as functionally based approaches. I’m not aware of anyone in the field who restricts themselves to only those solutions that exist in nature, so I am not particularly troubled by the asserted associations of ‘mimicry’. Time will tell which proves to be the most widely accepted term in an architectural design context. There are some other terms that are worth clarifying: ‘biophilia’, ‘biomorphic’, ‘bioutilisation’ and ‘synthetic biology’. ‘Biophilia’ was a term popularised by the biologist E. O. Wilson and refers to a hypothesis that there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living organisms. ‘Biomorphic’ is generally understood to mean design based on biological forms. ‘Bio-utilisation’ refers to the direct use of nature for beneficial purposes, such as incorporating planting in and around buildings to produce evaporative cooling. ‘Synthetic biology’ refers to the design and fabrication of living components and systems that do not already exist in the natural world and the redesign and fabrication of existing living systems. The key distinction between biomimicry and synthetic biology is that the former is not currently trying to create living components. From an architectural perspective, there is an important distinction to be made between
‘biomimicry’ and ‘biomorphism’. Twentiethcentury architects have frequently used nature as a source for unconventional forms and for symbolic association. Biomorphism has produced majestic works of architectural form, such as Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal, and was used to great symbolic effect by Le Corbusier. But, in contrast, biomimicry is concerned with the way in which functions are delivered in biology. The distinction is important because we require a functional revolution of sorts, and I firmly believe that it will be biomimicry rather than biomorphism that will deliver the transformations described above. There is still a role for biomorphic architecture. Biomorphism’s use of forms from nature, and its use of associative symbolism, can be deeply compelling. The two approaches can co-exist in one building, and biomorphism can add further meaning than would be achieved from a purely technical use of biomimicry. Biomorphism is a formal and aesthetic expression; biomimicry is a functional discipline. It is also worth considering the limitations of biomimicry. Just as with any design discipline, it will not automatically produce architecture, and we should be wary of trying to become purely scientific about design. Architecture always has a humane dimension – it should touch
the spirit, it should be uplifting, and it should express the age in which it was created. The word ‘natural’ is used in many contexts to imply inherent virtue or ‘rightness’, and it would be easy to misconstrue biomimicry as the pursuit of solutions that are ‘more natural’. This is not the aim. There are certain aspects of nature that we definitely do not want to emulate: voracious parasitism to name just one. There is also a danger in romanticising nature. What I believe nature does hold that is of enormous value is a vast array of products (for want of a better word) that have benefitted from a long and ruthless process of refinement. Evolution could be summarised as a process based on genetic variability, from which the fittest are selected over time. The pressures of survival have driven organisms into some almost unbelievably specific ecological niches and into developing astonishing adaptations to resource-constrained environments. The relevance of this to the constraints that humans will face in the decades ahead is obvious. What about sceptics who regard human achievements as superior to nature? There are no combustion engines in biology, plants are less efficient at converting solar energy than modern photovoltaics and there are no high-speed rotating axles in nature either. All true – but no one is suggesting that what exists in biology should be the limit of what we should consider exploring in technology. In many cases, biology has solved equivalent challenges with greater economy of means. As a case in point: without a rotating axle,
how can you drill into wood? The wood wasp’s solution is a reciprocating drill, made of two shafts that are semi-circular in cross-section, each with a barb at the pointed lower end. The two halves can slide back and forth relative to each other so that, when a barb on one side latches into a shallow groove in a tree, the wasp can pull against that side to push the other half of the drill further into the wood. The result is a zero net pushing force drill, which prevents breaking and buckling, and which is the perfect solution for very human applications, such as delicate neurosurgery. We know from Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbooks that he closely studied the forms of skulls and birds’ wings: he was, in many ways, a pioneer of biomimicry. We also know that Filippo Brunelleschi referred to the forms of eggshells when designing the Duomo in Florence and it is quite likely that deriving design inspiration from nature goes back even further. More recently, there are some well-documented examples, such as the invention of Velcro around 1948. In the past decade there has been a phenomenal flourishing of biomimicry, as more and more designers respond to the demand for sustainable products. The Daimler Chrysler biomimetic concept car, inspired by the surprisingly streamlined and roomy boxfish, surgical glue developed from an understanding of sandcastle worms and even ice cream that embodies lessons from arctic fish have all delivered a superior product by learning from adaptations in natural organisms.
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“ You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
The state of the art Michael Palwyn Biomimicry in Architecture, RIBA Publishing, 2016
Since the publication of the first edition of this book, the discipline of biomimicry has grown substantially. According to academic Dr Nathan Lepora, fewer than 100 papers per year were written on biomimicry in the 1990s; this figure has increased to several thousand papers per year in the first decade of this century. Much of this activity has been in the fields of robotics and materials science. The opportunity now exists for architects to fully embrace a source of innovation that has transformed other fields of design. The Mediated Matter design research group, founded by Neri Oxman at MIT, is showing the potential for using biologically derived materials combined with additive manufacturing (often referred to as 3D printing). Achim Menges and his colleagues at the University of Stuttgart are showing, in compelling built form, what can be achieved from a deep understanding of biological structures combined with new digital design and fabrication tools. Biomemetic architectural projects usually follow a fairly typical pattern for innovation: starting at a conceptual level, then realised as small-scale experiments and subsequently
as large-scale but relatively simple enclosures. The first examples of more complex and integrated approaches to biomimicry are just emerging, as indicators of progress towards wider market acceptance. While the pace of innovation can be painfully slow, I believe that biomimicry has the potential to accelerate this, by identifying a truly sustainable end-goal and through its wealth of source material. Biomimetic projects completed to date offer a tiny glimpse of the potential that could be created from a sourcebook we are just beginning to explore. High-strength polymers and super-efficient structures, fire detectors and fire retardants, materials made from atmospheric carbon, zero-waste systems: all of these exist in biology as a resource of ideas from which architects can learn to create buildings and cities better tuned to the demands of our age. While much sustainable design has been based on mitigating negatives, biomimicry points the way to a new paradigm based on optimising positives and delivering regenerative solutions. One of the key questions is how we can accelerate the pace of innovation in the
construction industry and in design for solutions that deliver substantial improvements in performance and contribute to people’s wellbeing. I believe that increasing knowledge and new biomimetic projects help to drive the high-level discussion and action that can help to bring about a step-change in the speed of uptake of biomimicry in architecture.
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Vespers III Vespers mask capturing bacteria from breath.
Material Ecology 03
A skyscraper is not a tree, not yet. Neri Oxman Nature x Humanity Documentary, Oxman Labs, 2022
200 years humanity has become the dominant force in shaping the face of our planet. This year, 2021, marks a crossover year, when the anthropomass, the mass embodied in the built environment, which includes concrete, metals, bricks and glass will exceed the biomass on our planet, which includes trees, plants, animals, bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Current building technologies and material practices are its main culprits propelling us to an inevitable future where we're called upon to build shelter against ourselves. As we project 200 years ahead, what are the values, principles, knowledge, skills that we must cultivate as we architect the future of synergy between the natural and the built environment. Since our divorce from nature with the Industrial Revolution, the major challenge for architecture remains a challenge of language as we replace units of growth with units of construction. For over the past
Five tenants for a new ecology
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centuries we've been taught to sketch, model and build in three static dimensions: X, Y and Z. But the natural world offers contexts that are much more dimensionally complex and dynamic. They include environmental dimensions such as heat, light and humidity, and epidemiological dimensions associated with viral load influencing urban immunity. When we're able to communicate in nature's language, when we're able to transcend the view that nature is a boundless entity, even transcending the building as the kernel of the architectural project, per the Bauhaus tradition. When we invite scientific inquiry and technological innovation, fusing atoms with bits and bits with genes. Only then will the art of building enable new forms of interaction between humans and their environment. Only then will we be able to design, construct and evolve as equals. In the past few years, for the first time in architectural history, we're approaching the resolution and complexity of the natural world by creating new technologies that will ultimately enable us to design a beam as if it were a branch, or an HVAC and waste removal system as if it were a photosynthetic GI tract, engineered to convert carbon into biofuel. This is the precision medicine moment of architectural design, and it is a growing moment. Imagine that nature is the single most important client in your architectural practice. What are the values and principles at the core of such a project?
In the following pages are five demonstrations of the principles presented overleaf, including the technologies we've engineered to design and construct them. Consider them not as five points for a new architecture, but perhaps as five tenants for a new ecology. They include glass, polymers, fibers, pigments and cellular solids.
C D E
Technology over typology
Technology has the power to either improve, or entirely reinvent the typology it was devised to serve. Additive manufacturing of glass, for example enables the creation of architectural scale optical lenses, offering a glimpse into the design and construction of solar powered and energy harvesting building materials.
Decay over disposal
We emphasize decay over disposal, whereby decay is designed, by orienting biomaterials to programmatically biodegrade and rejoin an ecosystem for purposes of fueling new growth.
Multi species over mono species
With continued deforestation of the rain forests (humans cut down nearly 15 billion trees per year) it will degrade into a dry savanna. Can we design, not cut, trees? Can we apply the same ethical code to fiber producing, cotton producing organisms and honey producing pollinators?
Heterogeneity over homogeneity
We need to design materials that can restore, or rewild biodiversity on the planet. When ecosystems are more diverse, they are better able to perform essential ecosystem services, like carbon sequestration.
System over object
We must consider the building not as an object, but as a collaborative system tightly linked to its natural environment, an ecological niche.
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Glass II Substrate of the 3D glass printing process
Project GLASS A
What if we can utilize glass for harvesting solar energy in efficient and effective ways? Neri Oxman Nature x Humanity Documentary, Oxman Labs, 2022
optically transparent, structurally sound, and chemically inert,
glass is a fabulous building material, and has been for over 4,000 years. Still, the production and use of hundreds of billions of glass facade components every year in the US alone begs the question, what if we can utilize this immense surface area for harvesting solar energy in efficient and effective ways? The 3D printing of optically transparent glass points towards such a possible future. Unlike blowing or forming glass resulting in smooth and continuous surfaces, the printing of glass enables high levels of control over shape and optical properties. Here's one example. When the nozzle releasing a stream of molten glass is raised above a certain level, the glass thread begins to wobble, or autocoil. It traces out waves, or loops, which can be controlled by adjusting the speed of the nozzle. If the dribbling of the glass outstrips the forward motion of the nozzle, the
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thread will trace out a meandering wavy line, instead of a straight one. Based on how fast the glass is falling, or a given height, we can predict the glass pattern and its structure. As a result, we can predict its optical properties. This simple ratio, height and speed, can produce a wide variety of shapes. Those shapes then become the building blocks for intricate threedimensional structures that can function as giant optical lenses. We are currently at work on designing channels and pockets within those lenses as we explore the possibility of harvesting solar energy through them. Another unique feature associated with the lensing effect is the ability to reverse engineer shadow detection and behavior. In other words, we can generate shapes based on the shadow footprints we wish to optimize for. The printing platform is based on a dual heated chamber. The upper chamber acts as a kiln cartridge, while the lower chamber serves to anneal the structure. The kiln cartridge operates at approximately 1900 Fahrenheit and can contain sufficient material to build a single architectural component. We've additionally designed a rotary table which embodies an infinite rotation capability about the z-axis, providing a fourth degree of freedom. Like a molten calligraphy pen, it enables control over internal geometrical features.
Utilizing this technology, we're able to print full-scale columns with integrated lighting generating a large caustic footprint. The caustics is the sum of light rays reflected and refracted through the curved surface of the printed column over the surrounding floor and wall areas. Given their geometrical complexity and dynamic optical properties, the columns act as architectural scale lenses that can concentrate or disperse light from within, and or, outside the glass surface. Now re-imagine Centre Pompidou without any functional or formal partitions of systems. Instead, consider a single and continuous transparent building skin made of glass, that can integrate multiple functions, and can be shaped to tune its structural and its environmental performance, not unlike the human skin, which serves at once as barrier, and as filter. This five-meter-tall structure is more or less eighty percent water, straight off the robot. The rest is about 20 percent trees, apple skins, and shrimp shells. To speak in nature's language, we must prioritize bio-based structural materials.
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Agua Hoja Close-up of chitosan based material highlighting dissociation through evaporation
Project Biopolymers B
How can we deploy biopolymers to construct at an architectural scale? Neri Oxman Nature x Humanity Documentary, Oxman Labs, 2022
biopolymers are natural polymers produced by the cells of living organisms. We're
already utilizing them in products, pharma, even in fashion. But to deploy them on the architectural scale, we need to invest in design and construction technologies that emulate their hierarchical properties by engineering real-time chemical formation. From a limited palette of molecular components, including cellulose, chitin and pectin, the very same materials found in trees, crustaceans and apple skins, natural systems embody an extensive array of functional materials, that outperform human engineered ones through their resilience, sustainability and adaptability. If we can scale structural function relationships found in trees and crustaceans, call it parametric chemistry, we will be able to architect buildings, including full-scale towers as living structures, able to adapt and respond to their environment. With over 300 million tons
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Biopolymer I 60% Chitin 10% Cellulose 30% Pectin
Biopolymer II 20% Chitin 60% Cellulose 20% Pectin
Biopolymer V 10% Chitin 50% Cellulose 40% Pectin
Biopolymer VI 55% Chitin 15% Cellulose 30% Pectin
Biopolymer III 10% Chitin 10% Cellulose 80% Pectin
Biopolymer IV 10% Chitin 80% Cellulose 10% Pectin
Biopolymer VII 5% Chitin 25% Cellulose 70% Pectin
Biopolymer VIII 0% Chitin 50% Cellulose 50% Pectin
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of plastic produced globally each year, less than 10 percent of it recycled, there is a real need for alternatives. The Agua Hoja collection, with two pavilions, aims to subvert the toxic waste cycle through the creation of bipolymer composites with tunable mechanical and optical properties. These renewable biocompatible polymers
“ Through life and decomposition, shelter becomes organism, and organism becomes shelter”
leverage the power of natural resource cycles, and can also be made to decay, as they return to the earth for purposes of fueling new growth. A tree becomes a tower, a tower regrows a tree. The robotic platform we designed to enable this process includes a robotic arm, a mixing chamber and a differentiated fan array. Both shape and material composition can be directly informed by desired physical properties, such as stiffness and opacity, environmental conditions, such as low temperature and relative humidity, and robotic fabrication constraints, such as degree of freedom, arm speed and nozzle pressure. Each structure in the collection contains a unique combination of organic materials, whose location texture and distribution are data driven, and additively manufactured in high
spatial resolution. In contrast to most synthetic materials, structures included in this collection will react to their environment over their lifespan, adapting their shape, their mechanical behavior, and even their color in response to fluctuations in heat, humidity and sunlight. Standing five meters tall, Agua Hoja is a mini tower, composed of the most abundant biopolymers on our planet. Its layered structure, known as a biocomposite, is designed as a hierarchical network of patterns, optimized for structural stability, flexibility and visual connectivity. Combining shell-like and skin-like elements, the pavilion's overall stiffness and strength are designed to withstand changing environmental conditions, such as heat and humidity, while retaining its flexibility. Over time, with the evaporation of water, the pavilion skin and shell composite transitions from a flexible and relatively weak system, to a rigid one that can respond to heat and to humidity. Upon exposure to rainwater, the pavilion’s skin and shell, made of about five thousand fallen leaves, six thousand apple skins, and three thousand shrimp shells, will dissociate programatically, restoring their constituent building blocks to the existing ecosystem. Through life and programmed decomposition, shelter becomes organism, and organism becomes shelter, as it holds the potential to promote the health of natural resource cycles by such means as promoting soil microorganisms and providing nutrients for growing buildings.
Agua Hoja Pavillion The Agua Hoja Pavillion structure horizontally positioned during construction
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Silk Pavillion II 3D point-cloud scan data of the pavilion during silk spinning employing infrared laser rangefinders
Project FIBERS C
Can we extract silk without exterminating silkworm cocoons? Neri Oxman Nature x Humanity Documentary, Oxman Labs, 2022
we often neglect to appreciate the
sheer quantity of plant and animal derived materials processed and consumed by our industry. Timber, resin, rubber, linen, dyes, silk and a wide array of fibers offer but a brief reminder of their use and mishandling. With over 1,000 silk cocoons boiled in the production of a single t-shirt, we ask can we extract silk without exterminating cocoons? What are the technological, architectural and ethical implications for sericulture, architectural construction, for bio-digital design? How might we invent technologies to enable co-design, co-manufacturing and even cohabitation? What are the ways by which we can reorient architecture to consider materials, not as consumables, but as outputs of valuable and increasingly scarce ecological niches? In our most recent project, Silk Pavilion II, we were reunited with our good friends, the silkworms, to provide answers to some of these questions, culminating in the co-creation of
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a six-meter-tall fiber structure made almost entirely of silk. Two discoveries were key to this project. The first was that in the absence of a vertical post, a branch, silkworms will spin flat silk sheets. The second was that the distribution of silkworms, and thereby the organization and the density of fiber per a given surface, is directly linked to environmental conditions such as gravity, heat and light. In order to spin an architectural scale, we designed a positioning mandrel in the form of a cylindrical kinetic jig, placed between two wheel-like elements. Over 10 days and 15,000 clockwise rotations, we were able to achieve a more or less homogeneous spread of fibers across the entire surface area of the structure. Rather than boiling the cocoons, as often is the case in the silk industry, our process enabled the silkworms healthy metamorphosis during spinning, and not a single silkworm was exterminated in the pavilion's construction. The pavilion's primary structure, and the soluble knit scaffold, were stretched utilizing a cable system with the intermediate knit yarn providing support for the silkworms. The holes, which ended up releasing
some of the tensile stress in the structure, resulted from chemical reactions between the silkworms excretions, and the underlying yarn. These structural forces are influenced biochemically, expressing a metabolic footprint of the silkworms internal, material expressions. Ten days of co-creation among silkworms, humans, and a giant robotic loom, resulted in a structure made of silk threads with over seventeen thousand participating caterpillars sourced from Tuolo, Italy, one of the most extensive silkworm rearing facilities in Europe. In this region of Veneto, the tradition of sericulture and silk manufacturing blossomed during the 12th century Renaissance. Combined, the length of silk spun amounts to the length of twice the Great Wall of China, or the distance from New York to Minnesota, or the diameter of our planet. It is a fine example of how these small, yet unique insects can act as architects, and a reminder that the planet and the animal kingdom can no longer offer infinite material yield, but a delicate animal kingdom rarity begging to be mothered and architected with dignity.
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Channels of melanin Extracted from six terrestrial species
Project PIGMENTS D
We question our ongoing relationship with biology, ecology, and natural history. Neri Oxman Nature x Humanity Documentary, Oxman Labs, 2022
with biodiversity on planet earth under momentous threat,
and extinction rates estimated at between 100 and 1000 times their pre-human levels, architects are now on the look for materials and substances that can enhance biodiversity, and re-wild living systems. One such substance, known to sustain and augment the diversity of wildlife at the genetic, species and ecosystem levels, is melanin. It is a naturally occurring chemical chain that gives all living things, across all kingdoms, their color. A biomarker of evolution, melanin is the color of life. The substance that defines the color of skin, hair and eyes, is both ancient and modern. It is found in dinosaur fossils, and today can be chemically synthesized at the lab. It is one of the most resistant, heterogeneous, and pervasive pigments found on our planet. It is the bricks and mortar of the natural world. Without it, we're toast.
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In addition to its critical role in providing protection from UV radiation, it serves a wide variety of functions, including mechanical protection, energy harvesting, cell growth, and thermal regulation, in all living organisms. Melanin represents unity in the diversity of life on earth, and is clearly linked to biological survival throughout the ages. It is key to human survival on Earth. This project addresses and speculates upon architects' ability to chemically synthesize this pigment of life as a functional material, enabling the generation of materials and structures designed to interact, adapt, and respond to the natural environment. Melanin can be synthesized through a reaction between an enzyme found in mushrooms, called Tyrosine
and a protein building block called L-tyrosine. The pigment can be extracted from mycelium, bird feathers, cuttlefish ink, pigeons, quails, whales, your own hair, even, then purified and filtered in a series of steps. The genes for melanin production can also be engineered into bacterial species such as e-coli, enabling high levels of control over texture and response to changes in the environment. For instance, its coloration could deepen as the sun reaches its peak, providing protection from solar radiation. Over the past year, we've developed methods for the design of structures that can contain biological substances across scales, from micro to macro, and also across phases, from solids to liquids. As part of the basic research behind this project, Totems,
we've created a series of structures featuring a single connected channel filled with liquid melanin. These structures display a wide range of colors and absorption spectra, from light yellow, to dark brown. The channels have been computationally grown, 3D printed, and biologically augmented to create pockets for the liquid melanin to reside in, with channel diameters ranging from millimeters to centimeters. An installation designed for the exhibition Broken Nature features melanin production on an architectural scale for deployment in a specific environmental context. Each column is initiated with the introduction of Tyrosinase, an enzyme that is light sensitive, leading to color formation that continues over the span of a day,
deepening as the sun reaches its zenith and easing into lighter hues as the sun sets. These melanin-infused columns function as biological windows, designed to provide protection from, connection to, and transformation of sunlight. We've translated this research into the built environment through an architectural proposal for a design in Daba, endorsed by the Mandela Foundation. This environmentally responsive melanin-infused glass structure is designed to contain multiple types of melanin obtained in Cape Town. It provides UV protection during the day and stargazing at night. How is it possible, we asked, that the very same material that brought us together over millions of years across all kingdoms of life is tearing us apart?
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Robotic arm Time lapse photo highlighting movements of the proprietary robotic arm system during construction of the pavillion
Project CONCRETE E
How can we scale complexity, tunability and intelligence to match urban scales? Neri Oxman Nature x Humanity Documentary, Oxman Labs, 2022
now, back to space. We've
so far examined four case studies with the bespoke technologies invented to design them: glass, biopolymers, fibers, and pigments. As you've noticed, the units of life despite their complexity and sophistication, are tiny compared with the scale of concrete bricks, steel columns, and glass facades. So how can we build with life? How can we scale complexity, tunability and intelligence to match urban scales? How might they apply to archetypical building materials such as concrete and geothermal foams? The digital construction platform is an experimental technology for large-scale digital manufacturing. In contrast to typical gantrybased construction technologies, robotic arm systems offer the promise of greater task flexibility, and ability to excavate, design and build with local materials, solar harvesting and so much more. Our platform consists of a mobile five-axis hydraulic arm, with a six-
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“ Why hurry to Mars while we can architect a future of synergy between humans and nature?”
axis robotic arm mounted at its end point. Combined the platform offers 11 degrees of freedom. You're looking at long exposure images highlighting the two arms in action. These two systems implementing a micro macro manipulating robotic architecture, akin to the biological model of the human shoulder and hand, where the large arm is used for gross positioning, while the small arm can perform fine positioning, provide oscillation compensation. and improve force control bandwidth. It can even act as a Geiger counter, detecting and measuring ionizing radiation. The arm system has a radial reach of more than 10 meters, and the system's tracked base provides mobility to the platform. To demonstrate the platform's ability to sense and scale, we designed and printed a dome, one of the most structurally stable forms. As our demo material, we used foam, which can expand 40 times volumetrically. Small amounts of this material enable building structures that are much larger than the footprint of the system. So here's the system: an autonomous self-driving entity, controlled entirely on its own, armed with nearly 8,000 pounds of
material, as it places the first layer of the print on the foundations. The 50-foot diameter dome, with an open top was fabricated in just under 13.5 hours over two workdays, at which time it was we believe the world's largest continuous print on-site, manufactured by a mobile printer. Looking forward, to create a certifiable structure, this form could be filled with concrete and reinforcing metal elements utilizing the very same system, with a custom end effector to place rebar. At the end of the mission, the system drives itself back to the hanger using a remote-control button on an iPhone. Potential applications for the system include fabrication of non-standard architectural forms, incorporation of data gathered on-site, in real time, into fabrication processes, improvements in construction efficiency, quality and safety, and exploration of autonomous construction systems for use in disaster relief, hazardous environments, and extraterrestrial terrain. Last year, the platform was acquired by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, for purposes of remote construction on Lunar and Martial missions.
By her 80s, my daughter Raika will be living on a planet that is four degrees warmer, with 11 billion people living on it, with vast portions of it rendered uninhabitable for millions of climate refugees escaping storm and fire. Scientists predict that the sixth mass extinction will be well underway causing irreversible damage to our planet. As master builders and authors of the anthropomass, architects, the gardeners of tomorrow, will either make, or break, our bond with nature. The design practice of the future will not differentiate between atoms, bits, and genetic matter, nor will it discriminate against other species. Within it, we will fuse hardware, software and wetware to create new kinds of structures that can respond, adapt and evolve. This future is as complex and ethically charged as it is fascinating, as it is promising. Either way it is the only way home. So take one more look at that pale blue dot, that's still here, that's still home, that's still us. Our little Earth, the small stage in that vast cosmic arena. Now think about your children, your grandchildren, your cousins, nieces and nephews, and consider a post-apocalyptic
city placed within landscapes blasted by cataclysm, that have begun to destroy most of civilization, and, in the intervening years, almost all life on Earth. Why hurry to Mars while we can architect a future of synergy between humans and nature? Rather than being forced to abandon this precious planet, let us design our way back into it. Make nature your client and you will be forever grateful.
Rather than abandon this planet, let us design our way back in
→ Neri Oxman, Material Ecology
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Acid rain Aerosols Aether Air Animalcules Anthropomass Aristotle Aristotelianism Armageddon Asbestos Astronomy Atmospheric pollution Atomic Structure
Bacon, Sir Francis Bacteria Bauhaus Bio-design Biomemetics Biomimicry Biophilia Biosphere Bosch, Hieronymous Boyle, Robert Brahe, Tycho Bruegel, Pieter Burdock burr
Cell Cellular structure Cellulose Centre Pompidou Chitin Circular Economy Climate modelling Cloud formation Corbusier, Le
59 60 25 18 24 85 20 22 21 39 20 54 24
20 40 86 80 82 73 78 74 38 17 20 38 77
31 24 93 90 93 74 51 54 78
Da Vinci, Leonardo Descartes, Rene Design Divine Creation DNA
E-coli Electron microscope Environmental science Europe Eukaryotes Evolution Extinction event
Fast fashion Fish larvae Fluorescence microscopy Foldscope Food Science Forensic Science Fourier Transform infrared spectrometry Fuller, Buckminster
Galileo Gassendi, Pierre Geiger counter Genesis GI Tract Grand Unified Theory Greenhouse effect Gun Shot Residue
Harvey, William Hobbes, Thomas Hooke, Robert HVAC
Industrial Revolution iPhone
Keppler, Johannes King Charles I
Legacy pollution Light microscopy Light stereozoom Locke, John London L-tyrosine
Mahowald, Natalie Malaria Manufacturing Malphigi, Marcello Melanin Microbes Microfibers Micrographia Microplastic Microscope Microscopy Microwave radiology Mining
Nanotechnology Nanoplastic NASA Neurons New Science Newton, Isaac
Ocean Wise Conservation Association Ocean sediments Old Testament Origami Microscope Organelles Oxman, Neri
Pepys, Samuel Pectin Plastic rain Pliny the Younger Pneuma Posthumous Works Polarising light microscopy Polyester Polymers Power, Henry Principia Mathematica Prokaryotes
Quail eggs Quality Control
Radiative forcing Red blood cells Reflected Light Microscopy Revell, Laura Restoration England Robotics Royal Society
Saarinen, Eero Scanning EM Schmitt, Otto Silkworm Shadwell, Thomas Sludge Snow crystals Solar geo-engineering
Telemicroscopy Tire particles Totems Transmission EM Tyrosine
Utah UV protection UV radiation
Van Leeuwenhoek, Anton Velcro Vincent, Julian Vogel, Steven
Waste Weathering Wilson, E. O. Wood wasp
X-ray spectroscopy Yarn Yukon Zenith
The Invisible World
© 2022 Penguin Random House UK Edited by Ruairi Walsh, Chapter 1: Allan Chapman, Terrence Allen Chapter 2: Matt Simon Chapter 3: Michael Palwyn, Neri Oxman All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in another form or by any means, electronic, or mechanical without permission in writing from the publisher. For more information please visit penguin.co.uk Set in Euclid Square and Euclid Flex by Swiss Typefaces. Printed in Republic of Ireland ISBN: 978-3-89932-268-7
The Invisible World