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.
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.
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.
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.
While conducting a polar bear survey, a young Berkeley engineering student decided that trying to find white bears against white snow was too difficult, so she had the ingenious idea of spotting them with infrared scanners. It's the same thing the military uses to track movements of enemy vehicles: The scanner detects the heat radiating from an object, so picking out a live animal should be a piece of cake in a frozen wasteland like the Arctic.
"You cannot see me. I am a hidebear."
Strangely, this only made the problem worse when they found that the bears were completely invisible to thermal imagery. The bears were seriously like mud-covered Schwarzeneggers to our Predator.
When scientists zoomed right in, they found that they could see parts of the bears' faces and their breath on the infrared imaging, but nothing else. It turned out that the polar bear's secret power was all of its extra blubber. Blubber is an amazing insulator (it actually becomes more efficient as the outside environment becomes colder), and on a polar bear, it's almost 4 inches thick and can weigh up to 1,500 pounds.
"Man, fuck you, I've been exercising!"
Because the bears evolved to insulate themselves against the frigid cold, they don't give off enough heat to register on our sensitive heat-sensing equipment. This means that they're the only animal that is invisible not only to the naked eye, but to robots as well.
For our endless vanity, human beings spend a lot of energy trying to keep stains away from our stuff. If you've ever dropped a glass of red wine on your carpet or coffee on your shirt, you know there's a whole industry dedicated to keeping fabrics and liquids apart. And if you want state of the art, these days the word you're looking for is "hydrophobic," the buzz word for expensive fabrics that actively repel liquids.
But once again, this is old hat for Mother Nature. For example, this is what happens when you drip water onto a lotus leaf:
Or urinate on it, as in this case.
These leaves have what is awesomely known as superhydrophobicity, which means that, instead of getting wet, water just bounces off them like bullets off Superman's chest. And they use this as their own built-in dry cleaning service. When rain falls on the leaves, the water washes off all the dirt and debris without actually getting anything damp, maximizing the leaf's exposure to sunlight.
It's not just plants that have mastered waterproofing technology. Butterflies use superhydrophobicity on their wings, so they expend literally zero energy on cleaning, leaving them free for important butterfly work like gathering pollen and being magical. But the true master of the art would have to be the water skeeter:
Which RPG makers saw and immediately said, "Let's make a giant one of those that we can ride."
Their legs are so waterproof that they can actually walk on water as easily as we can walk on pavement. And their bodies repel water so efficiently that, even when a water skeeter is hit with a raindrop greater than the size of its body, it's completely immune from getting wet.
Scientists are looking into how to replicate the technology nature has already mastered so that we can make clothes, paints, and buildings stain-proof. So if you're a dry cleaner or a window cleaner, you might want to look into updating your resume. Thanks for the shitty economy, science.
For more ways we just plain aren't cooler than nature, check out 6 Modern Technologies Animals Invented Millions of Years Ago and 5 Advanced Technologies Still Catching Up to Invertebrates.