Earth Science Week: Earth as inspiration

How does the Earth inspire science and engineering? From giant geologic structures to the geometry of a snowflake, the Earth provides endless inspiration for innovation and scientific creativity. Here are some examples of the Earth as Inspiration funded by the National Science Foundation.

Songs of the Red Rock Arches

Credit: Jeffrey Moore

The red rock arches of Utah are iconic geologic features that appear immovable, but are they? Geoscientists at the University of Utah have found that the wind blowing across and around these arches can actually “pluck” the rocks like guitar strings. Continuous seismic measurements of these arches reveal that each vibrates with its own frequency, too low to detect with the human ear. When the ambient vibration data is sped up, it produces unique earthly tones. Monitoring this activity helps geologists understand when these arches are in danger of collapsing.

Antibacterial clay

Credit: Lynda Williams, ASU

Clay is more than just mud — it is potentially a powerful bacteria-blaster. Scientists from Arizona State University and the Mayo Clinic have found inspiration for antibiotics from Oregonian blue clay. These clays specifically diminish populations of bacterial biofilms that appear in two-thirds of the infections seen by health care providers. In the lab, this blue clay also has antibacterial effects against dangerous bacteria like E. coli and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). This is preliminary research, but more research could help better understand the antibacterial properties of this clay and allow for specific compounds to be synthesized for use in health care.

Patterns in nature

Credit: Jon Sullivan via Wikipedia

Fractal-like patterns are ubiquitous in nature — you can find them in snowflakes, broccoli florets and the bottoms of gecko feet. These mesmerizing, repeating patterns have provided inspiration for human-created objects, from stunning buildings to stained-glass windows. In mathematics, fractals serve as visual representations of “self-similarity,” or patterns that repeat to infinity. Mathematically, they help solve problems that involve complex, natural variability. Those include the movement of oceanographic sensors in eddies, and the ways plastic collects in certain patterns in the middle of ocean gyres. Fractals can also be used to model unpredictable financial markets and compress data files.

Nature-inspired innovation

Nature has provided the inspiration for some of the most sustainable and environmentally safe products on the market. Living Ink, a company funded by NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, uses algae as a replacement for petroleum-derived products. They specifically focus on algae-derived inks that can be used as ecofriendly pigments. BioMASON, another NSF-funded SBIR business, uses the strength of bio-cements created by microorganisms to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from masonry manufacturing. Bacteria “grow” cement, building naturally. The result presents an alternative to the fossil fuel-intensive cement-making process used in traditional masonry manufacturing.