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Short Stories of Science and Invention
Nature's Science and Invention

Nature’s Science and Invention



Learning From Nature


     This is Palm Sunday, and if nature follows her usual custom, it won't be long before most of the Northern Hemisphere will be green again. I can think of no better time to reexamine some of the things we have inherited from nature - especially the miracle of plant life and the green leaf.

     In a short time, thousands of us will be digging in the earth and planting seeds - Victory gardens, we will call them. The farmer will be doing the same thing but on a much larger scale. As an experiment, we might try planting in a single row all the different kinds of seeds. And if we are patient, out of that row we can eventually get vegetables and seeds of all kinds, and flowers of all colors from the same earth, receiving the same sunshine! Thousands of different materials - a chemical factory supreme, without even a test tube or Bunsen burner!

     How this is done remains one of the important unsolved problems. Man, with all of his knowledge, has not been able to tell us much of the why or how of the green leaf. Yet we know this is the fundamental link between life on earth and the inexhaustible energy of the sun. We depend on the leaf for our food and clothing - our very existence.

     We have long been seeking for other means of using the energy from the sun. Recently, I mentioned that a single acre of our Ohio farms received from the sun, in the three summer months, energy equivalent to that developed by burning 250,000 gallons of gasoline - enough to take care of the ordinary needs of over 2,400 cars for a year under the present rationing! If we could devise some method of capturing that sun energy, there would be no need for rationing at all.

     When man appeared on this earth, he must have - found vegetation in all forms. Green leaves of many kinds were trapping that sun energy and converting it into plant growth. We are now using through coal and petroleum the sun energy given to those green leaves millions of years ago.

     We do utilize, in another way, a small portion of the power by harnessing waterfalls - Niagara's great powerhouses are just using the energy of yesterday's sunshine.

     It is not because nature is trying to keep that secret - we just haven't fully evaluated the problem or spent anything like enough time working on it. Many people have studied this subject and all have made contributions.

     Fifteen years ago another research project was set up to help find the answer to this fundamental problem. When it was started, we employed some very young men and I told them, "This may be a two or three generation job. So don't get discouraged." They all smiled, but 15 years have passed since then and, although much has been learned, the final answer is not in sight. After all, we mustn't be discouraged - it probably took nature several million years to do this trick. Dr. Inman once said, "Nature apparently has plenty of time to solve her problems while man, as an individual, has so little that he learns patience with difficulty."

     We know that a plant can take carbon dioxide from the air and water from the ground and put them in such physical condition that oxygen is released when light shines on the leaf, and entirely new substances, such as sugar, starch and wood are formed.

     Our problem is to take this same light and produce in the laboratory similar chemical compounds or other products by using the principles we will ultimately learn from the plants. There is a long road to travel yet, but in our journey we have discovered many interesting and valuable by-products which would have remained unknown if this research had not been started.

     When a man comes to me and says, "All of the major problems of science have been solved" - I like to ask him the simple question, "Why is  grass green?" Some day scientists will get the answer. I hope this happens while I am still alive but that is not important because it may take a long time.

     But regardless of this, the open-minded researcher will continue to operate on the principle that the surface has just been scratched - what is known of nature's processes is very little indeed and the World of Today will seem quite primitive and amateurish in the light of discoveries to be made in the World of Tomorrow.

Catching Up With Nature


     Recently, Dr. Black conducted on the General Motors' Symphony, the overture by Johann Strauss "Die Fledermaus" or "The Bat." I have often wondered if the composer knew at the time he wrote this that the bat had a voice of great range. The voice however is pitched mostly above the ability of the human ear to detect.

     I was discussing this with a musical friend of mine and I asked him if he knew of this peculiarity. He said he had never heard of it but he was very curious to know why the bat had this high pitched voice and how he used it. So - I told him of the work that had been done by two professors at Harvard and added that there were other animals such as cats and dogs who, in addition to their audible voices, were able to communicate with each other in inaudible sounds.

     Now most people regard the bat as a rather objectionable, somewhat loathe some creature that lives in dark caves and comes out only in the evening and flies around to hunt for food. The thing that makes this more interesting is that tests made in many of the caves where the bats live show that there is insufficient light to register on our most delicate apparatus. These devices can detect light much below the point of visibility. Now the bat can fly around in these caves apparently as well as if they were fully lighted.

     This uncanny "blind flying" ability has, from time to time, aroused a lot of speculation on the part of scientists. Comparatively recently, as I mentioned, two men at Harvard found what they believe to be the answer. Instead of theorizing they decided to try a few simple experiments.

     The two men, Dr. [Robert] Galambos and Dr. [Donald] Griffin, picked out a sound-proof room for their experiments and suspended from floor to ceiling a straight row of steel wires spaced one foot apart. Bats were set free in the room and they flew about, rarely touching the wires.

     Then they were blindfolded and this did not seem to make much difference, in fact, some of the bats did better blindfolded. But the next step indicated the bats' secret. Their ears were plugged and their eyes were left uncovered. It was very difficult now to make them fly but when they did they collided consistently with the wires. And the same thing happened when a thread was tied around their mouths and their eyes were uncovered and the ears unplugged. Apparently the bat steered by sounds from its mouth which were picked up by his ears - the eyes had little or nothing to do with it.

     Using the most modern sound recording devices the men found that while in flight the bat emits a sound which has a frequency of vibration reaching a maximum of about 80,000 cycles - or, in musical terms, about 8½ octaves above middle "c." We call these sounds "supersonic" because their pitch is so high they cannot be heard by the human ear. Our range of hearing is somewhat greater than the highest note produced by instruments of the orchestra. The harmonics on the E string of the violin are about 10,000 cycles per second. Apparently, the bat while in flight sends out these inaudible sounds in short squeaks which strike the obstacle he is approaching and are reflected back and are picked up by his sensitive ears in time for him to steer clear of the object.

     This method of sound reflection has been used for many years to determine the depths of the ocean and the pilots of boats in Alaskan waters often use the echo of their boat whistles to determine if they are getting too near the cliffs when travelling in dense fog. Many other applications of this system are in daily use in laboratories for determining faults in materials and undoubtedly after the war it will be applied in many other ways.

     We feel proud of our recently developed sound echo devices even though the bat has been using it in the dark for thousands of years. We marvel at the automatic flying instrumentation of planes but every year flocks of birds go from their southern homes to their northern ones and return to precisely the same location with only their natural instrumentation.

      Man has attempted to duplicate some of the feats of the animal world and in recent years science has given us instrumentation that has done very well indeed.

     But we are a long way from catching up to Nature. There are some people who speak glibly of science "conquering Nature." Nothing could be further from the truth. When a scientist conquers something, he abides by the fundamental laws and does so with Nature's permission. He has learned that conquering is submission.

From Cocoon to Test Tube


     Quite often these days we are visited by representatives of Industry and Education who are investigating their future research problems.

     The Industrial man as a rule wants to know how our research organization is set up and how we select our problems.  The Educator is interested in our projects from the standpoint of how much they involve Physics, Chemistry or Engineering. We, of course, believe that all fields of human endeavor offer great opportunities for research.

     Take for instance our three primary necessities - Food, Clothing and Shelter. They have been improved over centuries, yet there seems to be as great an opportunity for advancement here as in any new field. As an example - let us take clothing and, one material in particular - silk. Man in developing the sources of clothing, relied heavily on Nature - using plants, animals and even insects as suppliers of materials.

     History states that as early as the year 2200 B.C. the Chinese had already spun thread and produced garments of silk. As the demand for silk increased, the business of cultivating silkworms, raising mulberry leaves to feed them, and weaving the fabric became a great industry in China. China kept the process a secret for almost 3000 years.

     Various groups eagerly tried to find how it was done but when they failed they turned to substitutes. The Egyptians experimented with many materials even to spinning thread from the spider's web and this was tried again as late as 1750 when a Frenchman organized the Spider Silk Works and turned out gloves and stockings. But real silk culture, however, in France, began about the time Columbus discovered America when they successfully duplicated the Chinese product.

     Things, however, did not always go well with the French. In 1860 a mysterious parasite threatened to ruin the industry which was centered at Lyon. In desperation the growers called on the great French scientist, Louis Pasteur, to help them. Pasteur had a very able research assistant, de Chardonnet who, as a result of his work on this project, gained a first hand knowledge of silk which was to prove of great value to him later.

     Chardonnet was also extremely interested in photography and, one day, when coating some photographic plates, he accidently spilled a bottle of collodion. He left the sticky mess but came back later when it was partially dry and tried to clean it up. In doing this, he pulled out some long filaments of the material which closely resembled silk. Chardonnet knew that a silk substitute would have a great value, so starting with collodion, he began a long series of experiments until he at last developed an artificial silk fiber from which he produced fabrics. These materials were exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1889.

     But Chardonnet's artificial silk was very inflammable and many chemists worked for twenty years more until they found the answer in cellulose acetate or rayon. But these very early materials had some physical shortcomings and in addition, the word "artificial" had to be lived down.

     In 1928, Dr. Carothers, working in a laboratory in Wilmington, took a different approach. Instead of trying to duplicate the silk fiber, he started by analyzing the job to be done. What were the results desired? He found that the qualities people liked in silk were its appearance, resilience and wearing qualities.

     From this analysis, he tried many combinations until one day, some years later, he chemically produced a coarse, tough fiber from which he was able to draw some very fine filaments through a hypodermic needle. He had at last produced a fine synthetic fiber that was strong and resilient - it was not an imitation of silk, wool or cotton. It was an entirely new thing from which have been made numerous products from toothbrushes to nylon stockings.

     This is a brief history of just one element of the textile business but it is a good example of how progress is made. The new material broadens the field, the older ones are improved.

     If man, after centuries of patient work can continue to evolve new materials, in old industries, the possibilities in new fields must be practically limitless. We should always remember, however, that these developments take time. We must also appreciate the fact that there is no way - of definitely forecasting when or how a research problem will be solved and above all who will solve it.

Underwater Powerhouse


     The period in which we are now living might be called "The Age of Electricity" and the war with its widespread use of Radio, Radar and many other electrical devices serves to emphasize this point of view.

     We normally think of electricity as a product of man's ingenuity in fairly recent times. While the effect of rubbing amber was known about 600 B.C., Franklin identified lightning as electricity less than 200 years ago. By and large, we think of electrical development as coming from such men as Faraday, Morse, Edison and Bell.

     In view of this, it may perhaps be a surprise to some of us when we investigate a little more thoroughly how nature has used electricity. One such use is by a South American eel. This specimen has received considerable attention from scientists in recent years because it, and its ancestors for thousands and perhaps millions of years have used electricity as standard hunting and fighting equipment.

     This peculiar part-eel, part-fish may be anywhere from three to six feet long, four-fifths of which consists of the electricity producing organs or battery made up of about 240 cells. The eel can instantaneously produce a charge of electricity in this battery when hunting down smaller fish for food. Upon finding a likely morsel of food, a small fish for instance, it comes near the fish and delivers a powerful shock, paralyzing it and making it an easy prey.

     Our Indian friends in South America in turn eagerly sought these eels as delicacies, but found, through bitter experience, that they could be shocking as well as appetizing. In fact, the Indians were often knocked down and their arms benumbed for hours as a result of being on the receiving end of one of these electric discharges. The Indians found a way to get around this however, and after locating a pond in which the eels lived, they would drive two or three horses into the water.

     Infuriated at being disturbed, they would attack the animals, shooting their bolts, so to speak, and temporarily paralyzing the horses. While the eels were in this discharged state, they were easily taken by the hunters. Apparently these Indians also used them for other purposes than food for I have read that the Indians used them for their electric shock, believing it was probably a remedy for such things as headaches, paralysis and rheumatism.

     For many years scientists have been interested in this electricity producing organ but only recently have instruments been available for the study. A little less than two years ago scientists equipped with these modern tools added much to our knowledge.

     It has been known for some time that one source of electrical energy was a chemical substance called phosphocreatine found in the nerves. But it was extremely difficult to study electrical charges in ordinary nerves because they were of such minute quantities. However, the large electric organ of the eel was ideal for this purpose.

     These research men found that the same chemical substance phosphocreatine acted as a "storehouse" or "accumulator" for electrical energy and the breaking down of this chemical was similar in action to that of discharging a battery of Leyden jars - producing a powerful surge of electrical energy.

     Although the individual units or cells of this natural battery can produce only about one volt, the combined effect of the 240 cells is quite high. In fact, the power delivered by shock can be several kilowatts. We can appreciate the significance of this power plant when we consider that it can produce for about three-millionths of a second at a time the power required to illuminate thirty of our ordinary 60 watt lamps. The most interesting point however, is that this can be done under water.

     Exactly how these new investigations will add new information is yet unknown, but we do know there is a mysterious interrelation between electricity and the nervous system and the electric eel seems to offer a means of clearing up some of the mystery.

     Today we feel justly proud of our great power plants, brightly illuminated streets and cities, but I cannot help but feel humble in the presence of such a phenomena as the electric eel. This example of nature's handiwork which has been here on earth for perhaps millions of years gives us something to think about.

     It is just one example of the tens of thousands of unsolved mysteries which surround us on every side, and offer unlimited opportunities for our research men in the future. I am convinced that one of the great untapped sources of our knowledge is nature's great storehouse of developed facts. We should not overestimate our own accomplishments because it is more than possible that new facts, obtained from studies of nature can modify and improve many of our own well-established theories. 

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