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Book reviews

Learning from nature, hacking urban spaces, and a conspiracy to teach maths through one of TV’s most popular shows.

Nicholas Brealey Publishing 

The Shark’s Paintbrush: Biomimicry and how nature is inspiring innovation

By Jay Harman, £20, ISBN 978-1-85788-605-4

Earthworm-inspired low-energy lighting, antibiotics from cockroaches, materials based on maggot skin, and aerodynamic paint that mimics shark skin are the future. At least, they are according to Jay Harman, an Australian-born inventor and entrepreneur who uses these and many other examples of nature’s solutions to put the case for biomimicry as the next engineering revolution.

Nature has helpfully carried out trillions of parallel, competitive experiments for millions of years, which is why, argues Hayman in his introduction to the ‘The Shark’s Paintbrush’, nature’s successful designs are dramatically more efficient than human inventions. He feels it is time engineers embraced nature’s efficiency and functionality.

Fluid dynamics is one of Harman’s main interests (he has developed a dolphin-inspired boat and runs a venture in California called PAX Scientific, which makes energy-efficient turbines, fans, and water mixers based on geometries found in whirlpools) and something he writes particularly well about. The ‘Shark’s Paintbrush’ refers to the tiny scales or ‘denticles’ on sharkskin, which help reduce drag in water. So good is this design that researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany have created paint with denticles that reduces drag on aircraft and ships. Applied to the world’s aircraft, it could save, they say, almost four and a half million tonnes of fuel per year.

In many ways Harman has mixed three books into one. The first explores what we’re discovering about nature’s ready-made answers, such as the nine different molecules in cockroaches that are deadly to bacteria, and how tiny creatures like the moss piglet can withstand absolute zero temperatures (-273°C). The second is a kind of naturalist’s diary of animal adventures. Finally, there is a business guide on running a successful biomimetics company.

While one might quibble about the uneven tone and style, the charm of Harman’s almost missionary zeal makes this a truly inspiring book.

Christine Evans-Pughe



Smart Cities: Big data, civic hackers and the quest for a new utopia

By Anthony Townsend, £22.00, ISBN 9780393082876

Urban planning isn’t what it used to be. The digital breakthroughs that fuelled big business expansion in past decades are now being used by the likes of IBM, Siemens and Cisco to redesign the infrastructure of tomorrow’s smart cities. But according to Anthony Townsend, a battle has emerged.

As businesses produce blueprints for embedding intelligent software and sensors into every aspect of every city’s life, a growing movement of civic hackers is redesigning cities “one site, one app, one click at a time” ...and one city at a time.

Peppered with contrasts, Townsend’s book first focuses on Rio de Janeiro. Overwhelming floods prompted its Mayor to enlist IBM to design a disaster management system, but the resulting Rio Operations Center reduces the entire city to a stream of data and a set of equations, claims Townsend. Meanwhile, citizen-led developments in Zaragoza, Spain, leave the author describing it as “a real city” and a “platform of innovation”.

Townsend also explores what smart technologies are doing for the world’s poorest people. Pointing to slum dwellers embracing mobile phones and developing crowdsourcing tools to track government-funded housing upgrades, he applauds citizens adapting smart technologies to applications that matter to them.

But while the author has no doubts that “somewhere in Kibera or Soweto or Dharavi, some young civic hacker is cobbling together... technology that will change the world”, his text remains realistic.

Creativity may ooze from citizen-concerned civic hackers, but these smart city activists will not take on the dull work that IBM’s engineers tackle. And without a doubt, only the big companies and professionals can scale the software necessary for large-scale, city-wide projects.

Smart cities need both, and Townsend leaves us with a strong message: cities are not businesses; put people first. How tomorrow’s urban spaces evolve cannot be known but armed with this book, the reader will be bang up to date with who’s who in the smart city boom, and what’s happening where.

Rebecca Pool


Apogee Prime

2001: The Lost Science

By Adam Johnson, $49.95, ISBN 978-1926837-19-2

The word ‘seminal’, which my dictionary defines as “highly original and important”, could have been coined for Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Space technologists, writers and science fiction aficionados continually refer to it as a blueprint for the Space Age. In fact, in 1968, at a time when Nasa was promising men on Mars in the 1980s, many who saw the film considered its technology achievable within the putative 33-year timeframe.

This excellent book concentrates on the technology designed and, in Hollywood terms, developed for the film, using “blueline drawings, images and documents” from the Frederick I Ordway III Collection. Fred Ordway worked with Wernher von Braun at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, consulted at Nasa and acted as lead science advisor for ‘2001’. Indeed, he is shown in many of the book’s images, checking details of the PanAm Orion III spaceplane, liaising with illustrator and concept artist Harry Lange, and posing with Kubrick in the “inner rim” of the wheeled space station.

This book may have only 112 pages, but they measure 30-by-37cm and include some fascinating archive material. A picture of Lange with the construction manager in the ‘Master Models’ workshop - sporting trilby and cloth cap respectively - gives an impression of how advanced the film was for the age. Of particular interest to engineers are the line drawings and photos of the detailed models used in the film, not to mention the control-panel drawings that label each and every button. I’m not sure how many viewers noticed that the buttons were labelled, but they were - an indication of the level of detail lavished on this pre-CGI epic!

An extra treat is the ‘bonus DVD’ presented with the book: it includes a 40-minute film and other video, a slide show and thousands of pages of symposia, technical papers and other materials in PDF format. A great package for Odyssey fans.

Mark Williamson

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