When I was younger, in the days during which sentences beginning with “When I grow up, I want to be…” were still excusable — I continue to say that now, then remember that I’m not a child anymore, but merely a lankier-than-thou man-child — I wanted to be a marine biologist. Specifically, I was utterly and hopelessly fascinated by sharks.
This might be somewhat counterintuitive, but I think a lot of it started with “Jaws,” a film that, after I saw it at age 9, simultaneously kept me out of even swimming pools for two straight weeks and ignited a life-long fascination with those giant, beady-eyed murder-missiles. Ever since, I’ve never missed a “Shark Week;” my wife and I watched “Jaws” together on our first real date; I’m pretty sure that “Sharknado” was the result of some ambitious television producer/mad scientist hacking into my pre-pubescent dreams and transcribing what he found.
I was interested for all the reasons you’d think a 9-year-old boy would be: these creatures exuded power, mystery and had been alpha predators for so long that they seemed to take that status in stride, gliding through the water with a listlessness that flat-out belied their potential for explosive violence. I’m talking mostly about great whites here, but did I lose my ever-loving mind when, at 11 years old, I saw a six-foot lemon shark swim close to our fishing boat on a vacation to the Gulf of Mexico? Yes, and I still kind of do whenever I think about it.
I’ve grown, mostly, out of the “Oh my God sharks are awesome look at the TEETH!!!” phase of this infatuation — barely. What continues to fascinate me, though, is an aspect of the animal that Richard Dreyfuss’ Matt Hooper elucidated in the film when he was trying to explain the gravity of Amity Island’s problem: “All this animal does is swim, eat and make little sharks.” It is a marvel of evolution for the very fact that it hasn’t needed to evolve in almost 300 million years.
And that’s why I’ve become rather fixated on Sridhar Kota’s article “Shape-Shifting Things to Come” in the new Scientific American. Kota is the Herrick Professor of Engineering at the University of Michigan, and the bulk of his research for the last 20 years has been centered around simplified engineering, a body of work that he hopes will one day culminate in the widespread presence of one-piece machines. It’s a field of engineering known as “compliant design” and Kota, with the help of graduate students and colleagues, has already completed work on one-piece compliant staplers, windshield wipers, even prototype airplane wings.
The rationale is simple: when it comes to building more and more complex machines, Kota argues, engineers have relied upon a greater number of rigid moving parts to achieve the kind of movement and structure required for the project. It’s a short-term solution for a problem that is only going to feed off of itself as our mechanical needs grow more multi-faceted.
It’s a stroke of inspired genius that Kota and his team are looking not to recent engineering trends for cues on how to proceed, but from some of the Earth’s most ancient, almost primordial creatures: snakes for one, but also cephalopods like the octopus and squid, lack a rigid bone structure (snakes have bones, but they’re still mostly muscle and liquid), and yet have remained fairly dominant on this planet for eons. Nature, it would seem, is trying to tell us something about dealing with complex problems.
If this becomes the norm, I wonder what further implications it might have for humanity in general. We’re living in a time of extraordinary technological growth — though, to be fair, we’re mostly using it to either bomb people or post pictures of cats and genitals online — that serves, mainly, to make the world a smaller place. Once, in one of those hokey “Choose Your Own Adventure” books — this one involved cyborgs, an ancient ninja cult and two teenage girls with katanas, and, yes, I think I still own it — there was a character, a hacker who looked kind of like a cross between Butt-Head and Max Headroom, who spent his entire life in front of his computer, plugged into a virtual reality precursor. What’s interesting about him is that he’s completely aware of the implications, at one point casually mentioning how fantastic it is that the world is getting smaller and smaller. This was in 1989.
It seems we’ve turned our gift for endless inventiveness towards widespread simplification, towards the streamlining of life. Such grand steps can and should make child and adult alike giddy with the anticipation of what will soon be possible. I do wonder, though, about our fate once we achieve what we suppose is perfection. It is not, I don’t believe, the same as the great white, whose plateau is still one of dominance. Given our nature, given our penchant for destruction and for general mucking about, we may one day achieve apex status — but from there, there’s only one direction left to go.