Taking A (Possibly Explosive) Page Out of Nature's Book

There's this Cold War story I heard. It's said that at the beginning of the Space Race, both the Americans and the Russians bumped into a bit of a nuisance. You can't use pens in Space. They depend on ink flowing downwards. So the Americans comissioned a research team to invent a pen that would work even in 0G, and soon enough they had built a clever system for pumping the ink and, after some effort, created a working prototype.

The Russians used a pencil.

I like all our fancy high tech ("The problems of the future, today!"). Yet, because of all our computers and robots and nano and quantum and cyber, a different kind of ingeniousness seems to be fading into obscurity. It's the kind where, instead of making up long words and seeing what planet our comedically complicated machine leads to, you sit down, observe and take note. And then hijack it for profit, seeing as nobody's noticed yet, thankyousoverymuch.

I mean, we're pretty smart for bipedal worry machines, but nature's had millions of years to think things through. The kind of cleverness where we take a really good look at what nature's doing, and then usually go "Gimme that, I think I figured out how to blow up people with it!".

Borrowing from nature's genius has a certain simplicity to it. Sometimes we don't even borrow. Like great artists, we die starving wretches... umm... I meant to say we steal. Freudian slip.

For instance, did you know we figured out how to make sunflowers clean up after us when we spill our radioactive sludge? It's true. Sunflowers are part of a category of plants we call hyperaccumulators. Plants as a rule are pretty chill as far as energy consumption goes, and one of the things they do passively, courtesy of their amazing structure, is absorb water and minerals out of the soil. What makes hyperaccumulators special is that they pull from the soil stuff we really don't want to be there, such as radioactive isotopes or heavy metals. And they do so in a pretty big fucking hurry. There are also ferns that clean up arsenic, strands of mustard that take up lead, and many more.

Pictured: nuclear catastrophe
So, when an area is contaminated, we plant a field of sunflowers right over it. They absorb the isotopes from the soil and water and concentrate them into their stems and leaves. Then, after a short while, we harvest and dump them somewhere safe wholesale. Yes, you end up with a bunch of radioactive sunflowers, but it's far cheaper and simpler than having to dig up the whole area and find a place to build a radioactive landfill, then proceed to deposit all those tons of soil there.

One of the successes in using this technique came out of Detroit in 2001. Using sunflowers, they cleaned up a toxic area for less than half the price ($1 million less, that is) than it would have taken to dig it all up. It was also used on a far larger scale in Fukushima, in 2011.

It's also quite poetic.

You see, in the 1980s a fascinating movement was started in favour of nuclear disarmament, called 'peace planting'. It was formed of activists who would break into nuclear silos in the US and plant sunflowers, as a form of nonviolent protest. The largest happened in August 1988, when fourteen of them entered 10 different nuclear launch sites in Missouri. They launched a statement under the name "The Missouri Peace Planters", saying "We reclaim this land for ourselves, the beasts of the land upon which we depend, and our children. We interpose our bodies, if just for a moment, between these weapons and their intended victims." That's when the sunflower became a symbol for nuclear disarmament.

Except that was a full 7 years before the first time we ever tried cleaning up radioactive material with sunflowers, at Chernobyl, in 1995. Then, biologist Dr. Ilya Raskin placed some sunflowers on styrofoam rafts in a contaminated pond in the area, with their roots dangling in the water, and soon noticed that they had sucked up quite a lot of radioactive material.

It proved to be far more than a mere symbol.

Speaking of water, there are several plants you can use, in more or less complicated ways, to filter and cleanse water, turning it from bacteria-ridden brown disease cocktail to drinkable goodness. The most successful such no-budget water filters have been Prickly Pear goo and Moringa oleifera seeds. All you have to do is grind them up, add water and a pinch of sand to the mix, wait sadly for a while, and voila! (here is a link to a time lapse of water being purified by Moringa)

Image Property of JUSTICEWATER
Hanging around water just a wee bit longer, I'd like to add that, interestingly, nature's been very useful with orientation.

Well, yeah, no shit.

But I don't mean stuff like points of reference or stars, or even like moss growing on the northern side of trees (which isn't true). What I'm nudging you towards, you sarcastic fuck, is the interesting fact that ancient polynesians used, among other things, the flight patterns of birds and observation of fish in order to determine where they were across hundreds of kilometers of ocean. Really clever stuff.

But enough of this 'useful' and 'practical' nonsense. Let's get to the important stuff. Namely, blowing shit up!

Did you know, for instance, that we used to make an explosive out of freaking paper? It was known as guncotton back in the day, or more highbrow as nitrocellulose, and was used instead of gunpowder in all sorts of metal as hell ways because it's cheap to make, effective and smokeless. I'm not saying at all that the recipe is super basic and you should totally go right now and blow up stuff with your kids, but, I mean, at least it's a social activity.

Guncotton is funcotton!
And in case you did follow up on that and you accidentally buried 50 mines in your neighbourhood and can't seem to find them, because you're a genius at camouflaging bombs (hypothetically), worry not: the rats got you covered! More precisely, a Belgian NGO that's been using rats in the past years to unearth thousands of mines. As it turns out, they can be trained to sniff them out, and don't ask for wages, and have proven more effective than any sophisticated demining technology, as this article proudly points out.

Oh, you also planted a bunch of sea mines in your gulf, did you? No worries, mate. Just call in your local army's brigade of dolphins and sea lions, proficient in finding and tagging mines and unauthorised vehicles and/or divers, as well as retrieving stuff from the sea floor! Yes, they exist! Yes, they provide both bomb disposal and a cuteness overload! In a 2011 trial, a U.S. Navy SEAL (the human kind) tried to sneak past them into San Diego Bay in a diving suit five times, with no success. One time, a sea lion attached a metal clamp to his leg, and he was reeled in by a boat like a fish.

Corporal Punishment, recuperating after a stressful mission.

Now, I know you've heard of hunting falcons, but did you know they have seafaring counterparts? There are fishing cormorants, trained to snatch fish out of the water and bring it to you, and they're still quite widely used in Asia, especially Japan.

We also used to use 'call ducks' for duckhunting. These were domesticated ducks, trained to be traitors to their own kind. They would cry out in Duck something deep and meaningful (presumably) along the lines of "Quack.". At this point, the listenting wild ducks would have several questions, so they'd flock toward the source of the call. They would promptly be shot and roasted by hunters waiting nearby.

And speaking of using animals creatively, it's said the Persian Empire would use 'snake bombs' in battles. These were in fact no more than pots full of snakes that they'd hurl toward groups of enemies or on enemy ships. It sounds kind of far-fetched, but who really knows what those silly Persians were up to? (I mean, besides building refrigerators, which I, as a half-fridge cyborg, approve of!)

One of these stores a single gigantic sundae. (cone underground)
Now, suppose you had finally had your cool earthen vintage Persian refrigerator built, back in the day, and were just preparing to leave when you heard, somewhere in there, a cricket. Of course, the natural first reaction would be to briefly wonder whether I'd just told a joke somewhere, in which case it was perfectly understandable for the whole planet's soundtrack to become crickets for a short while. It's to be expected, of course. But the real question here is: should you attempt to hunt it down and kick it out? Not if you want to tell what the temperature in there is.

As it turns out, you can measure, with small errors, how warm or cold it is using crickets. All you have to do is listen. More precisely, count how many times it chirps in 15 seconds, add 37 and you have the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit. The reason this clever trick works is that crickets are cold-blooded. This means that their blood does not stay at a constant temperature, like with humans, but instead is at the same temperature as the surrounding environment. The speed of the chirp of these rather large insects is directly affected by and proportional to the speed of certain chemical reactions in their bodies, which in turn is proportional to temperature. Or more simply, the warmer it is, the more they chirp. (Slight downside: a cricket's chirp is its mating call. Therefore, in order to tell the temperature you need it to be horny, however you get that to happen.)

Insects I definitely don't want in there, though, are ants. That's where I draw the line.
More exactly, the chalk line. Generally, if you get an ant infestation, that means a few ants came into your house, found a source of food, and then went back and brought all their buds. The way they orientate is by leaving behind traces of chemicals called pheromones, which they follow back. That means that if you find the path they take, or more easily the entrance they use into your house, and you interrupt the pheromone conga, they're utterly lost, even if they were following a row of ants that's now right in front, but on the other side of the gap. One of the most effortless ways you can interrupt their path is draw one or several lines of chalk right across their path. Besides, chalk has the added benefit that insects generally avoid it because it sticks to their feet and makes them far less effective climbers.

It's a bit cruel, really. Just look at the poor devils in this video, all panicked because they're suddenly lost without hope:

There's also a similar, even more effective way: diatomaceous earth. It is a kind of quite common rock powder made of ancient fossilized sea critters. The trick is that it's quite cheap, non-toxic (it's basically a kind of dirt) and also fatal to get across for any small insect with an exoskeleton. That is because of its structure, fine enough not to damage skin, yet akin to glass shards at tiny ant scale. If they walk across it, the diatomaceous earth will damage their exoskeleton, which causes them to lose moisture and quite quickly dry up and die; insects usually avoid walking across it altogether. 

It's a testament to humankind's persistence that we've managed to weaponize dirt. Good job, team!

Speaking of things with exoskeletons, a surprising ally in medical science turns out to be the scorpion, more precisely its venom. It helps you die!

No, but seriously, we actually harvest, ahem, "milk" venom from scorpions. Even more fun: we do so using robots. Well, we've only just started using robots. In fact, scorpions are still mostly milked by hand. Here's a video of a researcher demonstrating how it's done:

The venom has several applications, among them in cancer research and preventing malaria by using venom-charged modified fungi to attack the malaria parasites hitching a joyride inside mosquitoes.

But this kind of overcomplicated solution is quite against our simple, straightforward, no-nonsense approach for today. Don't want mosquitoes around your house? You could spark up a collaboration with plants such as mint, lavender or others with strong smells. Mosquitoes hate them. Have a few planted around your garden. 

Or, an even better team-up, try making friends with some bats and get them to live somewhere around your home. You bring a shelter and perhaps a bit of food in winter, and they guard the area against flying bugs. Yep, it works, and yep, some people do this. Here's a guy and his bathouse:

If the bats get too comfortable, though, you'll have to call in an expert:

Alright, back on topic.

You could also try ordering predatory insects off the Internet, though bringing forn species into a new habitat usually goes to shit. They either die out or start reproducing out of control. Like kudzu: it was introduced in North America for its amazing speed of growth and capacity to keep soil together, thus preventing landslides, but it stayed because it became invasive and they can't get rid of it!

That makes it the second most ubiquitous and simultaneously obnoxious plant in the U.S. (in my book, at least). The first, of course, is the peanut. Not because it's bad in itself, but because of a man single-mindedly focused on turning peanuts into the only legume (yeah, it's a vegetable, I was just as surprised) Americans would ever need: his name was dr. George Carver. He was a black born in slavery, and quite a miracle man and revered scientist of the early 20th century. TIME called him the "Black Leonardo". His impressive list of achievements aside, he was most of all focused on improving crops for the tired soils of southern U.S.. And he's best known for his discovery of 300 different goddamn ways to use goddamn peanuts, from food products, to colorants, to glue, medicine, soap and paper. All this is only slightly on topic, but I thought it was interesting.

So let's get back to bombs, then, shall we?

Remember when we (well, I, at any rate) were talking about how plants are quite proficient at soaking up all sorts of stuff from the air and soil? Well, suppose they could tell us about it...

Enter a team of researchers from MIT and University of California, Riverside, and their bionic spinach. They have managed to embed a fun-sounding chemical named Bombolitin II, wrapped up in tiny tubes ('nanotubules') of carbon, in the leaves of living spinach. It's quite an unassuming bunch of molecules, unless...

Nitroaromatics are ... don't fall asleep, you bitch, I swear it's fascinating... a class of compounds quite often found in explosives. If there are traces of nitroaromatics in the soil or air, they'll get sucked up into the spinach. When they meet our nanotubules, they'll react, emitting infrared light. 

The plant lights up. 

The way the researchers framed it, a camera nearby picks up the signal from the spinach and sends a message to the scientist via E-mail. That's quite sensible. We wouldn't want to be standing out in the field watching the leaves on the offchance that they light up (and that we miraculously start seeing infrared).

And we'd have gotten away with our guncotton if it weren't for those pesky kids and their bionic spinach!

But suppose we did sit around watching the plants. Animals too. What would we see? The weather, for one thing. Plants and animals are quite adept at sensing the changing tides of weather, and there are subtle signs we can pick up on for a forecast. Tulips, clovers and dandelions, for example, all fold their petals prior to a rain. The stiffness of pine cones is an indicator of air humidity. Our unwanted tenants, the ants, become all panicky before rainfall and start scuttling around, scrambling to get a last bit of food and make it to safety, while our other guest, the cricket, does a specific shrill chirp.

All one has to do is pay attention.

As many such ideas come from oral tradition rather than real science, I've always been a bit skeptical. However, as a 2011 study from the Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge points out,
"There is a tendency for western-educated individuals to dismiss such traditional weather lore as simply a set of beliefs [...] [but] few scientific studies have ever been conducted in ancient Astro-science [here used with the sense of atmosphere science] and almost all that have been undertaken have reported encouraging and positive outputs."
Many traditional weather prediction methods are bloody stupid. But that's no reason to dismiss the basic idea. Ecosystems are fine-tuned to their own microclimates, and paying close attention to the subtle ways they react to atmospheric changes can yield valuable information for the observant weather forecaster.

Paying attention to nature pays off. Behaving as if we own the place with our big fancy opposable thumbs and language and rockets sure is a lot of fun. But it's worth remembering that we're not separate, but part of nature. Sometimes, there is an alternative to building some big metal monster to do our bidding, a much simpler and beautiful one: we are able to find common ground with other species and ... collaborate.

And when we give a shot to working alongside nature instead of head-to-head with it, we achieve things worthy of awe.

Or sometimes, just little things. For little creatures like us.


There is one fascinating invention that I felt didn't quite fit anywhere in the post, but it's too interesting and on-topic to just let it slide: using different plants as 'scaffolding' for growing transplant organs, a technique showing great promise because it's versatile and cheap.
Here's an article from National Geographic, about turning our friend spinach into beating hearts.

And here's a TED talk from the man growing human tissue from apples, using sterling tools straight out of the dumpster:

We're not teleporting Star Trek gods. We're tinkering trigger-happy monkeys with a bad temper.

Or not. The hell do I know?

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