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Nature, a breeding ground for science

   

What do a firefly and a super-flat computer screen have in common? How do earthquakes lead us to new oil deposits? What do radioactive particles tell us about works of art? In what ways are computer systems modelled on the human brain? These and other questions are symbolic of the role of observing nature as a permanent source of inspiration for science. The Leafon project, initiated by scientists at the European Physical Society (EPS), explores this special dialogue between science and nature through images. 'Inspired by Nature' is the first in a series of films intended for the public in general and teachers in particular, with supporting educational material available on the Internet.

     
   

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Meteorologists are using more and more parameters in an attempt to model all the subtleties of the atmospheric system, taking advantage of the impressive computing power provided by modern computers. When all the forecasts agree, Dutch skaters can set off on their famous annual race without fear of a thaw.

Inspired by Nature is the point of departure for a huge educational project conducted by the EPS. This 30-minute video - of which nearly 900 copies(1) have already been produced and which is available free of charge - was made for and launched during 'Week 2000'. A committee of European scientists from private research centres and academic circles was consulted on the choice of subjects and proposed the concrete examples which illustrate them.

The film focuses on five topics in turn to illustrate the lessons man has been able to draw from natural phenomena as diverse as radioactivity and earthquakes, animal behaviour, and the human voice and brain. Filmed at universities, research centres and companies(2) in five countries (Italy, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany and France), Inspired by Nature is the first in a series of six half-hour programmes provisionally entitled Bridges from Physics. The EPS hopes that this initiative to produce popular science programmes inspired by scientists themselves will encourage European television stations to make a similar effort.

'The EPS has about 80000 members and we are counting on them to spread the message and increase awareness among the media, schools and science education circles and, as a result, reach the widest possible public,' explains Brian Davies, coordinator of the Leafon project. 'The video is a flexible educational tool which is ideal for teachers who can either show it in full or concentrate on certain themes. We are also aiming to follow up on the subjects covered with developments at our Internet site.'

In presenting the Leafon project at the Brussels Royal Museums of Art and History, Sir Arnold Wolfendale, the EPS' president, showed himself to be an ardent defender of the cause and a man determined to break out of the ivory towers. 'There is an increasingly urgent need for scientists to meet the obligation of communicating their work to society,' he points out. 'Not only because it is partly the public who finance research, but also because science is increasingly affecting the lives of citizens. It is also essential to educate young people if we are to avoid the serious shortages predicted for a number of scientific disciplines.'

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The day it struck Galileo

In the 17th century, ink was made in small batches whose composition varied from one pot to another. The differences, which can be identified using this device which emits fast protons and detects the resulting X-rays, make it possible to date Galileo's manuscripts precisely by comparing them to his dated household documents. This allows us to date his writings promoting Copernicus' revolutionary idea that the earth rotates around the sun to within a day or so.


From neurons to intelligent cars

A complex organ, with a fascinating ability to learn, the brain is a constant source of interest to scientists. Its workings can be simulated - albeit in a much simplified form - on a computer as the neural networks modelled on the brain share this capacity to learn. It is by using such systems that objects as familiar as cars are likely to become 'intelligent'. Not only will vehicles be able to recognise situations already encountered, but they will also adapt to new events or driving behaviour. 'The system will modify certain vehicle characteristics (consumption, suspension, transmission, etc.) and could even switch between internal combustion and electric engines, depending on the performance required in different circumstances,' explains Werner Huptmann of Siemens' Munich-based neuro-informatics group in Inspired by Nature. The vehicle of the future will thus be made in our own image, that is, it will be intelligent. It will also produce much less pollution than today's cars.

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Earthquakes and oil

Although the intensive studies carried out by seismologists are mainly aimed at detecting the early-warning signs of an earthquake, their understanding of the physics of shock wave propagation can be valuable in exploring the substrata. 'By studying the propagation phenomena triggered by artificial mini-explosions, we can locate possible faults in the upper levels of the ground which could contain oil deposits,' explains David Kerridge of the Seismology Centre in Edinburgh. This technology is particularly useful for optimal exploration of known deposits.

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From monkeys and whales to fibre optics

At dawn or dusk, some animals, such as howler monkeys in the tropical forests and elephants on the savannah, are able to communicate over surprisingly long distances. They do so by using the physical phenomena of the reflection and propagation of sound created by small differences in temperature between relatively homogeneous atmospheric layers. Whales are able do the same thing as a result of differences in sea temperature and salinity at different depths.

The revolutionary invention of long-distance data transmission with minimal losses using fibre optic technologies applies the same principles of reflection and propagation to light.

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The arts

The natural and invisible phenomenon of radioactivity is not just for the important fields of medical diagnostics and cancer treatment; this Italian Renaissance painting is benefiting from it too. 'Low energy a particles which pose no threat to the works of art are aimed at the material to be analysed,' explains Professor Papparlado, of the University of Catania (Sicily). 'After half an hour of taking measurements we are able to determine the composition of a pigment or coating.'

In an altogether different field of art, the world of sound is used for analyses carried out by physicists and acousticians. An in-depth knowledge of sound is clearing the way for researchers to develop new virtual instruments: 'By combining vibrating structures formed from masses linked according to a certain model, we have created a sound network which can be controlled by a computer and even linked to animated images. Computing is opening up a whole new field in the exploration and creation of virtual audio-visuals,' explains Claude Cadoz of the Acroe Institute in Grenoble.

These examples are among those explained in Inspired by Nature.

(1) This film is currently available in English only, although it has been designed to allow easy dubbing into other languages.
(2) All the illustrations in this article, except for the one at the top of page 8, are taken from Inspired by Nature.

To obtain a free copy of the video, please contact
European Physical Society Secretariat
34 rue Marc Séguin BP 2136
F-68060 Mulhouse cedex, France
Fax : +33 389 31 94 49

Contact

Brian Davies
brian.davies@sciencewords.demon.co.uk
EPS Internet site: http://www.eps.org/

       
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