Shape Matters

Shape Matters!

What if we could transform our thinking and use less material and more clever shapes?
What if we could build things of whatever flies around like a spider ?


Photo Greenstone Girl

All spiders produce silk but not all spiders use it to produce webs. Different spices of web-building spiders spin different patterns. So you can identify the type of spider by looking and the intricate web they spin.

Animals do not spend time trying to create a wonderful material. They use the material that is available and the results are often mindblowing. A spider squirt the liquid silk out of their spinneret glands and this material is in liquid form until it hits the air where it hardens into a sticky substance.  Making the web is energetically costly process that requires a large amount of protein, the silk. A spider-web can use a fly to produce more webs to help them catch more flies. Spiders also eat their own web to reuse some of the energy that was used to spin it. They recycle the silk proteins.

Gecko’s feet are sticky something that has spark several ideas from climbing robots to surgical bandage. Yet, the feet are not sticky because of some special material, rather the shape of the hairs on the feet makes them sticky. The answer is molecular attractions that operate over small distances – van der Waals forces. The tiny hairs help to maximise contact with the surface.

Material is nature is expensive while shape is cheap.

This is a great lesson that humans perhaps should consider more often when designing things and solving problems.

In the video below, an exciting  research project,  ‘Metamaterial Mechanisms’ , at the Hasso Plattner Institute shows a new way that shape is used to create a material that can be used for a range or purposes. Different types of performances based on the shape. Exciting!




Emblems of Devoted Love is Facing GLobal Extinction – Turtle Doves

How devoted are politicians to saving the bird that has become emblem of devoted love?


Photo Yuvalr

European turtle doves form strong bonds and the rather small dove with the wedge-shaped tail with a dark centre and white borders and tips is a threatened species. The UK turtle dove population is halving every six years – down 93% since 1994.

In Spring, turtle doves arrive on the Brittish shore after a long migration fromWest Africa.  And often they find that their breeding grounds have been lost to modern farming methods. The birds are struggling to find food to raise their chicks.

In Autumn, the birds are flying to Africa.

Think about what it would feel like if they never returned?

No purring would be heard in the summer.

Do better understand why the numbers are declining so rapidly, six turtle doves are being satellite tracked. Last year, turtle dove named Titan was tracked and this year this project which is a cooperation between RSPB and the Operation Turtle Dove is adding more doves. Sadly Titan’s satellite signal was lost earlier this year. Yet important information about the migratory route and stopover sites were collected.

A picture of the threats that the birds face can help to identify strategies to support local conservation groups. But when you look at the migratory route, it is clear that to save the birds requires more than the engagement of one nation.

Go here to read about how old traditions are creating a problem for robins.

Postcard-from-Titan-postcard-front migration

Image: Operation Turtle Dove








Biodesign – Intersection between Art, Design and Biology

Creating a closed loop economy for the fashion industry!
An industry where the textiles are biodegradable and also serve as nutrients for future textiles and products.

Biodesign is an exciting approach to design and fabrication. The term refers to the incorporation of living organism as essential components in design. The underlying idea is that the incorporation enhances the function of the finished work. This approach is different from biomimicry, there the idea is to use nature as inspiration for new ideas and ways to solve a problem. It is a brave step away from imitation and mimicry to use and integration. Boundaries are dissolved and new hybrids of living objects are created.

“biodesign is not about merely taking cues from organic structures and operations. It’s about harnessing the machinery of the natural world to perform as nature does: storing and converting energy, producing oxygen, neutralizing poisons and disposing wastes in life-sustaining ways… In the wonderland of biotechnology, bacteria is beautiful, moss is electric and decorative tiles are animated.” New York Times

The overall winner of the Biodesign Challenge this year was taken home by artist Luke Jerram. His Glass Microbe is a symbol of mixing art, design, and biology.

His sculptures have been shown in museums all over the world and you can buy limited editions print of his sculptures here.

Book Tips

Bio Design: Nature Science Creativity







“It’s Hot Outside!” – Zebra Finch Parents tells their chicks

How do animals respond to climate change?

Well, birds may tell their offsprings that it is hot outside the egg.


Photo: A male Zebra Finch, Jim Bendon

Beep, meep, oi! or a-ha!.

Zebra finches are loud singers who are native to central Australia, Indonesia and East Timor. They inhabit grasslands as well as forests usually close to  water. This little songbird is preparing its offsprings for a warming world. A study has found that the zebra finches are making special calls to the embryos inside their eggs. The embryos can hear the sounds. The zebra finches are using sounds to influence the growth and development of their chicks.  So do birds learn as embryos? Well, another

This little songbird is preparing its offsprings for a warming world. A study has found that the zebra finches are making special calls to the embryos inside their eggs. The embryos can hear the sounds. The zebra finches are using sounds to influence the growth and development of their chicks.  So do birds learn as embryos? Well, another

So do birds learn as embryos? Well, another

Well, another study recently found that fairy-wrens learn, just like humans, as embryos. The embryos lowered their heart-rate when they heard calls from their own species but they did not respond to a white noise, which was a call from another species. The fairy-wren parents teach their embryos a special “password” to help them get food from their parents after hatching,

The idea that zebra finch parents would talk to their eggs and tell them important things about the world outside occurred to Mylene Mariette and Katherine Buchanan, when they noticed that parents would sometimes make a rapid, high-pitched series of calls while sitting on the eggs. They saw that the parents would only make these calls towards the end of the incubation period and when the maximum daily temperature rose above 26°C  (78.8°F).


Photo: Zebra finch chicks, Martin Pot

To test the idea that the calls would prepare the chicks they incubated 166 eggs and exposed them to the standard temperature of 37.7°C (99.9°F). Then they either exposed the chicks to the recorded incubation calls or the parents’ normal contact calls. The chicks that had listened to the incubation calls weighed less which is an advantage when the environment is hot. A smaller body is better at losing heat.

Vocal communication seems to have persistent effects on the birds. The lower weight chicks produced more fledglings than the control birds. Yet the control birds were more successful in a cooler environment. Zebra finches live in arid conditions so they availability of water is important. The birds only breed when the conditions are good so the change in calls make sense.

It is a comforting thought that birds as tiny as zebra finches can tell their offspring that the world is heating up. Yet I cannot help to wonder why humans are so slow to react. . .





Nostalgic Fondness and the New Frontier

How far would you travel to see a cloud?

And what would you see?


Gavin Pretor-Pinney  travelled halfway across the world to the middle of nowhere to see the morning glory. From the English countryside to the Australian outback. Morning glory is a spectacular cloud that looks like elongated cotton tubes. The cloud stretches horizontally across the sky – hundreds of miles.  A joke inspired Gavin to start the Cloud Appreciation Society, which now has members from all over the world.

The reputation of clouds is not always the best – clouds are getting in the way of the sun. Many sayings associated clouds to something bad, for example, the there is a cloud having over my head refers to something bad that is going to happen or that I am feeling depressed and sad.

Clouds look like objects swirling over the sky but they are only droplet or ice  crystals. Many of us have fond childhood memories of searching for shapes in clouds. Cloudspotting is a wonderful activity that remains an interest with some people, like Gavin.

Most clouds are formed in the troposphere (0-12 km), just above this layer of the Earth’s atmosphere is the stratosphere (12 to 50 km). This layer is very dry and dry but occasionally clouds are formed here.

In the mindblowing video below the question of how high the Earth’s biosphere extends are explored. Microbes have been found as far as 32 km into the atmosphere. Visit this extreme place by watching this animated documentary. Follow the microbes as they ride on air currents around the globe.

And next time you see a polar stratospheric cloud also called nacreous clouds or mother of pearl cloud, imagine different microbes that might swirl around high above your head. 





Photo: By Alan Light from Charlotte, USA. At Commons: Alan R Light (talk · contribs) – Nacreous Clouds over the NASA Radome -4-Uploaded by Hike395, CC BY 2.0


Great Green Roofs

Roofs can be transformed into a buzzing meadow!

Mosses and lichens will grow naturally on most roofs, but a green roof is intentionally designed to support various grasses and flowers. Green roofs can provide a wonderful place for local wildlife.

Green roofs are of course an old tradition. Below is a photo of a traditional sod roof or tuft roof in Sweden.

Ljungris_July_2013Photo Arild Vågen

The type of green roof you can have depends on the strength of the structure beneath. So before you decide to create a green roof seek professional advice to ensure that the roof is waterproof and structurally sound. Green roofs, apart from being great for wildlife, provide insulation and they also help to reduce the water run-off. A wildflower roof is pretty and if you cut it late in the year and leve the clippings, birds have access to seeds in the winter.

Often a thin layer of soils that are poor in nutrients can be used to create a small-scale green roof. Perfect for a shed, garages and small extensions. It is easier to transform a flat roof. Pitched roofs need more preparatory work.

Perhaps you associate green roof with life in the countryside. But it is becoming increasingly more common provide city dwellers with something interesting to look up towards. Greenery has the power to enhance the quality of life and the well-being.


Photo: Wikimedia

Love this modern low maintenance green roof filled with hardy native plants.

What does your dream green roof look like?


Photo: Leonard G.

A Meadow of Roses and a Meadow of Grasses and Wildflowers

A world filled with contrasts.

Imagine a meadow filled with roses! 


Photo: By Gavin McWilliam

The Savill Garden is an enclosed part of  Windsor Great Park in England. The garden was created in the 1930s by Eric Savill and you find woodland, ornamental areas with a range of different gardens such as the New Zealand Garden, as well as a pond.

In 2011, a new contemporary rose garden was designed by Andrew Wilson and Gavin McWilliam. The garden can be described as a meadow of roses. The scent of 2, 500 different rose bushes is filling the air. A leisurely stroll through a perfumed meadow  on a warm summer’s day is surely one of the most delightful experiences in life.

The roses are planted in big bold drifts of deep plum and soft pinks, apricots and tangerine orange, and pale yellow and white. The roses are surrounded by yew hedges and drifts of ornamental grasses.

Imagine a meadow filled with grasses and wildflowers.


Photo: Mark Robinson  Meadow flowers in a Dorset field.

Meadows are an intrinsic part of the UK’s natural heritage. Once upon a time, you would find natural wildflower meadows in every parish. Today, only around 2 percent of the meadows that were found in the UK in the 19302 remain. And many of the grasslands are not rich in species anymore. Wildflowers meadows are still being destroyed and threatened by urbanisation,  agricultural practices, invasive species and climate change.

Meadows support a range of wildlife apart from wildflowers, for example,  birds, bats, fungi, bees, flies, beetles, spiders, moths, butterflies, reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals. Meadows that are rich in genetic diversity and species also store carbon and help with water retention to prevent flooding and they are also a habitat for crop pollinators. Losing the wild flowers means that we lose access to traits that could help to build resilience in our crops.

Meadows are also important for their beauty. Meadows filled with swaying cornfield flowers have inspired writers such as Constable and Shakespeare. And meadows continue to inspire poets, writers, and artists.

A wildflower meadow in your garden can offer an alternative to lawns and borders.You can create an annual meadow and this works well in rich soil. Perfect if you are converting an old border into a meadow. Perennials  thrive on poor soils and the grasses compete less with the wildflowers.

Sarah Raven is an English gardener, cook, writer and TV presenter, go here to read an article written by her about how to create a mini wildflower meadow. Happy planning and planting.

Happy planning and planting.


Photo: Samuel John  Meadow