Skip to Content

A physics-focused tour of the animal kingdom offers inspiration for engineers and roboticists

Furry Logic: The Physics of Animal Life

Matin Durrani and Liz Kalaugher
Bloomsbury Sigma
2017
312 pp.
Purchase this item now

According to traditional flight physics, bees should not be able to fly. But fly they do, with mastery of non–steady state aerodynamics and little concern about our limited understanding of their capabilities. Human knowledge is catching up, however, with recent scientific insights revealing that these inconspicuous little creatures use aeroelastic deformation of their wings and highly dynamic vortex interactions to stay aloft.

Furry Logic: The Physics of Animal Life includes this and many other examples that illustrate how nature had solved complex engineering challenges millions of years before humanity even invented algebra. Building on recent insights in biophysics research, the book shows how animals have adapted to some of the most stringent and extreme environments. It is organized into six chapters that explain how animals use heat, forces, fluids, sound, electricity, and light to their advantage.

Accessible to readers from all backgrounds, Furry Logic uses a refreshing combination of scientific precision and colloquial wit to maintain engagement and admiration for the engineering marvels created by nature. Examples include the remarkable observation that all animals between 3 kilograms and 8 tons urinate for an average duration of 21 seconds and the fact that bees spit out nectar on hot days to cool their brains. Although many of these facts seem merely entertaining at first, they are based on some of the best biophysics research, with implications that could be of major relevance to the synthesis of novel and high-performance systems in engineering.

ALIJA/ISTOCKPHOTO

A flexible layer of collagen and elastic fibers under dogs’ skin allows them to rotate their wet fur nearly 180° to reduce heat loss.

Many great inventions have started with observing and understanding nature. For example, in his “Codex on the Flight of Birds” written about 1505, Leonardo da Vinci suggested that engineers should look to animals for inspiration for flying machines. Using a similar philosophy, Nikola Tesla, who invented the first aerial robots in 1898, was a keen bird lover who emphasized the importance of natural processes as models for engineering. Both da Vinci and Tesla not only were inspired by nature but also were able to understand the underlying physics, define the operational principles, and creatively translate them to engineering systems.

For me as a roboticist, Furry Logic was a source of inspiration and a catalyst for reflection on the synergetic potential between biology and engineering. The field of bioinspired engineering has seen several major successes in recent years, and it is an emerging subject of cross-disciplinary science. Applications range from gecko-inspired adhesive pads for heart surgery to flocking bird–inspired algorithms that solve search and optimization problems to flying fish–inspired aerial robots that can sample water quality during floods.

Bioinspired engineering is of particular relevance to robotics, where energy efficiency, sensing, control, and mechanical design need to be codeveloped and integrated in functional prototypes. This is especially important in unpredictable or changing environments. But the benefits of bringing together engineering and biology are greater than inspiration. Robots can be used as physical models to answer biological questions that would otherwise require difficult and/or potentially unethical animal experiments.

In chapter 3, for example, the authors describe a robotic flapping device that yielded an unprecedented look at the aerodynamics underlying bumblebee flight. Strategically placed holes released smoke during movement, offering insights that would not have been possible to obtain from living bees.

Furry Logic is an important book that is equally inspiring and humbling. Most critically, it demonstrates the potential for a new paradigm that integrates biology and engineering in a way that may help us solve humanity’s most important challenges.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Aeronatics, Imperial College London, London SW7 2AZ, UK.