We humans think we're pretty top shit when it comes to our big, juicy brains and fancy inventions, but sometimes we need to man up and admit that we're not always the best at what we do. In some cases, nature just rolls its eyes, pushes the scientists out of the way, and shows us how it's done.
#5. A Natural Nuclear Reactor Formed Underground in Africa
Few things demonstrate our mastery of the natural world better than nuclear power -- the godlike ability to dig certain elements out of the ground, split their atoms, and use them to power our homes and/or kill a billion people. But the science required to convert uranium into electricity is both advanced and incredibly tricky -- few countries have mastered it, and various disasters throughout history have shown us exactly what happens if you take your attention off a nuclear reactor for 10 minutes.
Well, OK, not that, but it's still pretty bad.
But then, after decades of trying to perfect safe and easy nuclear power, scientists discovered that a fully operational nuclear reactor had been safely chugging away under the West African dirt, long before humans came along. This sounds like something that would turn up in an outlandish documentary about stuff built by aliens, but the most remarkable thing about it is that the Oklo mine reactor in Gabon is completely natural.
Back in the 1970s, the French were mining uranium out of Gabon when they came upon the strange discovery that what they were digging up was depleted uranium (the waste from a nuclear plant) and even plutonium (which doesn't exist in nature -- ordinarily). After ruling out a secret West African nuclear program, scientists were forced to conclude that a kind of natural nuclear reactor had assembled itself in the uranium deposit and provided power for meerkat cities for millennia.
"Don't make us angry. You wouldn't like us when we're angry."
This reactor, assembled by nature due to random chance, generated the equivalent of about 100 kilowatts of electricity, got hot enough to boil off nearby groundwater, and consumed more than five tons of uranium before it shut itself down millions of years ago. Somehow, all of the elements just fell together to form a natural, self-regulating nuclear plant, and it kept running for 150,000 years.
#4. Whale Fins Are More Efficient Than Our Propellers
Conventional wisdom has long agreed that the leading edge of a blade (such as in airplanes, helicopters, turbines, propellers, fans, and windmills) should be as smooth as possible for greatest efficiency. And sure, it's this straight-edge design that helps us break the sound barrier, put men on the moon, and shape perfectly straight lines of cocaine. But nature laughs at our simple inside-the-box thinking. There's an animal out there that gets double the efficiency out of its "wings," and that is, of all things, the humpback whale.
Although it looks extremely ungainly, the humpback whale, with its fat, bumpy fins, has long been renowned for its acrobatic skills and great speed, letting it navigate water better than any of our wondrous flying machines navigate the air, but the same principle applies both ways. It turns out the secret is in those warty bumps.
And its powers of telekinesis.
The bumps on the leading edge of each fin actually break the water into high-speed channels that flow more smoothly over the wing, increasing buoyancy/lift and reducing drag and noise significantly. And science, defaulting to the whale's superior wisdom, is catching up by testing this design in everything from windmills to helicopters. This is what it looks like on a windmill blade:
Even if it doesn't work, imagine using these bad boys as weapons.
Of course, even if we can steal their idea, until our scientists can make a 30-ton vehicle as maneuverable as those whales are, it won't really feel like a victory.
#3. Palm Trees Brew Their Own Wine
Humans have gone to some impressive lengths to convert various liquids into alcohol. It was one of the first things we learned how to do after we started walking upright, and we've been refining the process ever since. But like anything we've invented with these opposable thumbs, there's a science to producing alcohol, which is our reward for reaching the top of the evolutionary ladder.
"Suck my pretentious balls, Darwin."
Then again, you could just get a palm tree. There are several varieties of palm tree native to the tropical parts of the world that double as natural breweries that manufacture wine on demand. You don't even need to do anything but tap the tree. As soon as it is collected, the palm sap immediately begins the process of fermentation and, within an hour or two, will typically have fermented to about 4 percent alcohol content. That's almost as quickly as it would take you to drive to the liquor store to obtain booze that has already been distilled.
While you'd think that booze you just wrung out of a tree would probably taste like ass, "palm wine" apparently has a certain charm that makes it popular from Ghana to India to Mexico. It's extremely cheap to collect, because collecting is really all that's being done. While conventional brewing methods require large facilities, specialized equipment, and plenty of time, all you need to get palm-drunk is a palm tree, a knife, a bucket, and an hour.
Holy crap, woman, go to a meeting.
In fact, probably the only reason you can't find palm wine on the shelf next to the Milwaukee's Best is because it's just too good at fermenting. After only a day or so, it ages into vinegar. Which, admittedly, still beats Milwaukee's Best.