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Old Embers

Nature, Mother of Invention by Felix Paturi
By Fritz Spencer
Jan 30, 2010 - 12:20:45 AM

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As February approaches, Maine is held tight in the grip of winter. As we make our way across ice and snow, and the harsh, gusting winds bite at our cheeks, we can console ourselves with the thought that spring will soon be here. How pleasant it is to think of the warm days when the snow will melt away, and the green shoots will press up vigorously towards the sun!

This passing season of cold and sterility makes the brief appearance of green all the more precious and mysterious. This is why the greatest naturalists have come from the northern lands, and looked upon the natural world with such care and reverence. It is no coincidence that the best natural history museum in Maine is the tiny Nylander Museum, the life's work of the immigrant Olof Nylander, which is tucked away neatly in Caribou, in Aroostook County, where the winters are long and hard. There the attentive visitor can spend a pleasant hour imagining how each shell once tumbled lazily through the warm waters, or how each painted butterfly floated here, then there, on a summer breeze.

Similarly, Carl Linnaeus, the greatest naturalist of all time, took great care when the brief Swedish summer arrived to tend his garden so that it would tell time, each flower blossoming within minutes of the correct hour. But plants have a power to do more than tell time. They are inventors in their own right. It is humbling to think that the greatest inventions of mankind merely recapitulate what nature has already devised - to realize for example, that the art of camouflage has already been perfected by the wily octopus, or that a shining green lamp is carried about by a lovelorn firefly in search of his mate, or that a perfect receiving device is present in the antennae of the moth. But it is in the plant kingdom where we see the most immediate and convincing evidence of a universal, creative mind at work.

That is the subject of Felix Paturi's fascinating work "Nature, the Mother of Invention." No other work presents such as astounding and revealing insight into the complexity of the plant world. Through copious illustrations, Paturi shows us that the plant world solved many of man's engineering problems millennia in advance. Here is a propeller blade, with an aerodynamically perfect profile, in the form of a maple seed, or samara. A microscopic photo of a cactus needle shows a point finer and sharper than can be made with the most modern manufacturing techniques. An ideal fastener is shown in the burdock seed, a structure copied and patented by the inventor of Velcro. The inventor of steel-reinforced concrete is shown to have copied the structure of a certain plant stalk, when he observed how light, but sturdy columns run through the length of the pith. For the ecologically minded, Paturi describes how plants are unexcelled in utilizing resources wisely.

Indeed, the title of the book was originally, "The Genial Engineers of Nature, How Plants are Technologically Superior." But it would be a mistake to recommend the book merely as a compilation of natural curiosities. The virtue of Paturi's enlightening work is that its many examples and illustrations point indisputably to a creative mind, infinite in its variety, unfailing in its application of the perfect solution, and delighting, almost to the point of humor, in the sheer act of creation. How else are we to explain that the humble plants by our doorstep anticipate and excel our own efforts at engineering?

Those in search of other worlds to explore, or those in search of an extra-terrestrial intelligence, would do well to start with our own world, for here in Terra, Earth, Eden, we will find mystery in abundance, and the evidence for a Creator of a world of wonders, and many other worlds as well.

Fritz Spencer

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