Spider walking up a textured wall

Book review: ‘How to Walk on Water and Climb Up Walls’

Image credit: Dreamstime

Millions of years of animal evolution is contributing to the design of robots that are more agile than humans are ever likely to be.

Dramatic footage of animals in the wild, carefully edited to tell an engaging story, has become such a fundamental part of nature documentaries that broadcasters must fear they’re raising the bar ever higher when it comes to catching viewers’ attention. Somehow, though, slow-motion sequences of creatures we’re never likely to see in real life negotiating the perils of their daily lives continue to amaze audiences and are one of the sure-fire video clips guaranteed to spread virally across social media.

So accustomed are we to witnessing nature in glorious detail – not to mention the ‘making of’ sequences showing how film was captured – that it’s sometimes easy to forget that feats like walking on water and climbing vertical surfaces aren’t things that animals do to show off or for fun, but are abilities that have evolved over millennia as vital survival mechanisms. Whether it’s finding something to eat, or to avoid being eaten, the simple act of negotiating often extreme environments can be a matter of life and death.

Water-walking and cliff-climbing are just two phenomena covered in ‘How to Walk on Water and Climb Up Walls: Animal Movement and the Robots of the Future’ by David Hu (Princeton University Press, £20, ISBN 9780691169866), a fascinating book, which starts by looking at the everyday yet complex way in which domestic dogs can dry themselves with just the right sort of shaking and goes on to explain how scientists analyse everything from the way in which snakes can ‘fly’ to the sophisticated interactions that coordinate huge flocks of fish and birds.

As an expert in both mechanical engineering and biology, Hu is perfectly positioned to explain the history and possible future of the study of animal physics and shape. That discipline – biomechanics – has a history dating back centuries, which is hardly surprising given our enduring fascination with how humans themselves might be able to emulate the animal kingdom by flying through the air or swimming underwater.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is the closing section, looking at how all the knowledge that’s been accumulated will inspire future technologies that actually do allow people, robots, or combinations of the two, to defy physical limitations when moving around. One of the pioneers of the study of biomechanics was Leonardo da Vinci, who – as with so many other things – believed that by understanding the science of biology he could adapt it to humankind’s advantage. Future techniques for walking on water are likely to be more sophisticated than the combination kayak/water skis that he sketched out, inspired by creatures that skim across a river’s surface, but will draw on the same inspiration.

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