In terms of design, the human skull is a wonderful helmet for a brain; its domed shape transmits force over the entire surface, allowing you to bump your melon on a shelf without suffering traumatic brain injury. The same principle applies to everything from turtle shells to eggs. The latter can withstand up to 90 pounds of downward pressure before breaking. So we're told in the Field Museum's new exhibit, "The Machine Inside: Biomechanics," which opens tomorrow and runs through January 5, 2015.
Up close, the show is filled with satisfying hits of scientific trivia, tailor-made to be unleashed at a cocktail party. Displays offer pithy answers to questions on the fascinating natural engineering of plants and animals: When standing in front of a heat map, why do certain places on your body appear brighter than others? What happens when a human, as opposed to a duck, dunks a foot in cold water? How does a parasitic wasp—an insect so tiny that calm air feels heavy to it—manage to take flight?
Cutting through the faux-wondrous ambient soundtrack is a collage of mechanical and natural noises that all too literally interprets the show's theme. Grasping the fullness of the exhibit's objective—to show that the world around us is filled with incredible biomechanical circumstances—seems to demand a slight step back.
The Field's curator of zoology and director of the Biodiversity Synthesis Center, Mark Westneat, described looking at life through the peculiar lens of biomechanics. "Just walking around the park here in front of the museum—if you see a squirrel running up a tree, it's an incredible biomechanical situation: the contraciton of the animal's muscles, the way its claws grip, maybe it's biting down on a walnut. The integration of physics and engineering and math with everything you see outside is a perspective that makes the world a more interesting place."
I'm not sure all viewers will share Westneat's level of enthusiasm after perusing the modular displays of "The Machine Inside," which are themselves designed to be easily broken down and put on the road as a travelling exhibit. For one, what is arguably the most interesting—and certainly most applicable—result of the study of biomechanics isn't foregrounded: biomimicry, in which engineers take cues from Mother Nature in design.
One of the classic examples of innovation inspired by nature is touched on, though. Looking under a microscope at the burdock burrs that were stuck in his dog's fur, Swiss engineer George de Mestral realized the burrs' hooked ends made them perfect for clinging to clothing and other looped fibers. He patented the Velcro fastener in 1955.
A few other examples of biomimicry are found in the section titled "Launching into the Blue: Wings and Fins." A video on aviation history shows the principle gone awry, with inventors dreaming up ineffective aircraft that attempted to emulate the winged flight of birds and insects. What those early tinkerers didn't fully grasp—and what the Wright brothers got right—is that a heavy plane needs the proper level of speed to get off the ground, like a plump albatross running before takeoff.
With the wrong approach, "The Machine Inside" could've been a creationist's wet dream, fodder for defense of the theory of intelligent design. The organizers have been careful to use the word design as a noun and avoid the verb form, which can hint at an invisible, divine hand at work.
When it comes to the big question of "Why?" behind the forms and their functions, the show is unequivocally Darwinian: The designs on display for everything from wings to eyes are the result of evolution, with weaker versions being replaced by more effective models throughout time. The process of biomechanical evolution is random—a collision of genetics, the environment and morphology. That the Field is making a subtle, purposeful move to take back design from the clutches of the anti-science movement, however, is no accident.