Interview with Julian Vincent

Susana Soares interviewed Julian Vincent, professor of Biomimetics at the University of Bath and director of Biomimetic and Natural Technologies.   The 11.5 minute video clip starts with a discussion about how to "get engineers to get back into biology" while retaining the value of building mechanisms and prototypes.  Although computer design is becoming popular, Vincent argues that computers "do what you tell them" while a prototype "might go out of control, with a bit of luck, and you learn something."  Rather than considering their designs as isolated from other systems, Vincent has suggested in Biomimetics: its practice and theory that even technical solutions are part of larger systems and need to take those system complexities into consideration.

Vincent reviewed his work on technological and biological usage of information, energy, time, space, structure and substance as means of controlling a system or solving a problem.  As shown in figures 2 and 3 of the article referenced above, we use energy as the primary 'lever' across the nano-meter to meter scales, within information playing a smaller role.  In contrast, biological systems use energy sparingly (about 5% of the cases), relying instead on 'embedded information'. 

Our 'heat, beat and treat' methods destroy the information in materials by homogenizing them through the application of energy, then uses even more energy to impose a new structure.  In contrast, biological systems do not have the luxury of vast amounts of energy but instead work with embedded information to self-assemble hierarchical systems.  These systems can have up to 20 layers, partly due to the scarcity of available energy and partly because biological systems are driven by forces that only work over short distances. 

Vincent points to our ability to tap fossil fuels during the Industrial Revolution as a key turning point in our relationship with nature.  Because we temporarily tapped into abundant and cheap forms of energy, we were able to act like a pioneer or invasive species that do not need to conserve resources but can focus on spreading fast and wide-spread colonization.  This phenomenon is relatively new in human history - pre-industrial society was heavily agricultural, with farmers worried about how they would pass their legacy to their children and children's children.  It is possible that our culture and behavior will change again though recognizing the limits of energy consumption and the impact of our resource usage on the systems in which we live.

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