A wonderful example (actually two) of cross-field thinking

I’m on the hunt for some people who are experts in biomimicry for Collaborating Minds. So if you know somebody, send them our way!!


twer_verticalFirst cross-field example – tensegrity

In the course of looking for sources, I ran across a story about how a biology student discovered the role of tensegrity in cells. Tensegrity (for those of you like myself not familiar with the term) is the construction of structures using separate pieces — some of which are in tension and some of which are in compression. These are artfully balanced, so the whole thing is both stable and flexible.  It’s something that Buckminster Fuller did a lot to explore and popularize.  A snazzy example is in the photo on the left.

Now here’s the story (paraphrased from the site linked above):

In a sculpture class, a Yale undergraduate Donald Ingber saw a tensegrity structure — six wood dowels connected with elastic.

 When the instructor pressed on the tensegrity structure, it flattened; when he lifted his hand, the structure rounded and jumped into the air. Ingber was immediately struck. He had seen something similar just a few days earlier, while learning how to culture cells in a cancer lab. Cultured cells flatten as they adhere to the bottom of a petri dish. Ingber had learned how to remove the flattened cells by adding an enzyme that degrades their sticky adhesions. When dislodged, the cells rounded up and leapt off the dish, just like the tensegrity stick-and-string model. Ingber left the class with a new idea: cells are tensegrity structures.

Ingber digs in and discovers there are some other facts about that suggest that he might be right. And apparently he was. For those who like an extra step of cleverness (beyond cross-disciplinary thinking), Ingber advanced the work, and made an analog of the cell, by building his own model.Tensegrity_cell_model


To replicate nature more closely, Ingber built a large strut-and-elastic string tensegrity model and this  time placed a smaller tensegrity sphere at its center. He linked this smaller sphere to the surface of the model cell by adding tensile filaments—creating one of the first hierarchical tensegrity structures (right). Ingber repeated his experiments using his hierarchical model and found that the cell and nucleus flattened in a coordinated manner. What’s more, the flattened cell appeared to polarize, with the nucleus moving to the region of the base where the greatest pulling forces were being exerted. He later confirmed experimentally that living cells exhibit precisely these same behaviors.

The story continues for another 30+ years — it was a big breakthrough.

Second cross-field example

The discussion of the folding shape reminded of another story that I had heard. When the Hubble Telescope was began operations, it was discovered that the mirror had been constructed slightly improperly. A team was convened to find a solution that could work on the telescope, which hadn’t been designed with mirror repairs in mind. A key breakthrough happened in a shower in Munich Germany, where a team member realized that this adjustable shower head in his hotel shower was built on principles that could be copied in order to make the device needed to fix the Hubble. And it was.

So what?

In each of these cases, one head put together two ideas from very different settings to solve a problem or make a breakthrough. That’s special, and hard. At Collaborating Minds, we are bringing people together so ideas from one field can be exposed to problems from others — and the people can work together to make the breakthroughs and solve the problems.  Join us ( biomimicry specialists or not!).






One Response to A wonderful example (actually two) of cross-field thinking

  1. Rachel Hellenga May 16, 2014 at 3:05 pm #

    So it’s true some people have their most creative ideas in the shower! I had a similar experience on a much smaller scale recently. “When you have a nail everything looks like a hammer.” I was walking around with a clearly defined problem on my mind when I spotted a metal earring back on the floor of a bathroom stall. I recognized it as a perfect way to create a switch for a simple circuit. I had been mulling over how to connect two pieces of conductive tape to each other and pull them apart to turn an LED on and off. An earring back is conductive, it’s essentially a spring with enough tension to hold onto the earring post, it connects one piece of metal to another, it’s made to be put on and pulled off hundreds of times, and both the earring back and earring post are flat enough to stick to conductive tape. Eureka! Off to the hobby store for some clean earring backs! “Chance favors the prepared mind” as Louis Pasteur said.

    On another note, I was struck by the beautiful picture on this blog post and am glad to discover the concept of tensegrity. Years ago that picture turned up in my image search for “Start of David” and I glued a print of it to the top of a matchbox as a Channukah gift. How appropriate to come across it again in the context of making connections across disciplines.

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