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Sam Asano's Let's Invent: Copying nature is key to invention

July 06. 2014 10:04PM

From point A to point B, we animals try to travel as effortlessly and as quickly as possible. If you take a thorough look at the way animals, including us humans, travel, you will gain a significant insight as a good inventor, if not a scientist.

One of fundamental abilities of a serious inventor is the skill of observation from two viewpoints. One is, of course, to notice details. The other is the ability to observe globally.

Last week, this column discussed the subject of propulsion or locomotion by animals. The Earth was divided into four domains: underground, on surface, in the water and in the air. Many species have their own default dwelling (namely when they rest) domain, and venture out to other domains for various purposes such as obtaining food, reproductive activities, rearing of offspring and other migratory movement.

The domain they most frequent determines their propulsion system. However, nature designs each species with perfectly combined abilities in other areas such as protection from predators.

A tortoise moves slowly. If you observe carefully, all of their limbs and head are completely retractable. Although the top shell and the bottom shell do not cover every inch of their peripherals, their predators have hard time getting to the tortoise’s inside. Its hard shell affords very strong protection.

Now, have you noticed that it’s just possible that the speed of an animal and the degree of protection are related anti-proportionally? In fact, the faster the animal could run, the thinner (weaker) their protection as it really doesn’t need the heavy weight of armor.

In fact, by observing this fact alone, one learns the well-established fact of the relationship between the animal’s speed and its protection from predators. The faster the animal, the thinner its protection. That thinking is a good example of global observation. Of course, that is an established fact that any grammar school kid may already know.

However, it has been my experience that the majority of inventors often lack both abilities — observing details and looking at things globally with two variables relationally.

In this case, speed is one variable, and protection is another. Knowing this ability will benefit you immensely through your career of inventions.

Throughout history, most inventions were born out of simply copying nature. Many readers may say “That’s nothing but common sense! You are not telling me anything I don’t know.” Well, if you know that already, why haven’t I seen some inventions from you? Because the majority of human inventions are nothing but copying nature. The older cultures like that of China have known for a long time that copying nature is an economical way to advance civilization rather than reinventing the wheel.

A great example of copying nature:

Sony, which has roughly 35 percent of the world CMOS sensor market and is the No.1 producer just announced an extremely unexciting yet most brilliant example of copying nature. (I have no relationship with Sony, and am not a consultant, and have no monetary interest, believe me. But this one I am compelled to mention.) Sony succeeded in copying the human retina, basically.

Animal retina is never flat. In fact, nature doesn’t produce anything flat. The human retina is curved and is attached to the rear of eye, as shown in FIG 1. The optical image is projected through the cornea and lens on the retina, and thus the image gets transmitted to the brain through the central nervous system.

If you observe, the retina is quite curved in three dimensions. It isn’t flat. It is spherical. Now think about this. The cornea and lens system, which projects image onto the retina spherically, is able to maintain all part of the image in focus. If the retina is flat, like all photographic sensors, including CMOS sensors, it just isn’t possible to maintain perfect focus on all areas. If one would focus the center of the image, then the edges will not be focused. If edges are in focus, then the center will be blurred.

If one wants to develop a camera that maintains perfect focus on all area of the image, the sensor must be curved spherically. You’d say “Yeah! Naturally! I knew all along.” The problem is, so far nobody could fabricate the CMOS sensor on a spherically curved surface.

The advent of this curved sensor by Sony will certainly revolutionize the high-end professional photographic field. I read that Sony is proceeding to offer these sensors to cellphone manufacturers so that the built-in cameras will produce much higher quality pictures. Additionally now that optical correction by lens became unnecessary, they were able to reduce the number of lens elements from five to three, thus reducing cost.

This is a fine example of copying nature. People knew that would have been nice. Yet this has been impossible. You can say that the nature had literally millions of years ahead in developing the curved retina. We humans just did it in 2014. There are many more examples of copy-able nature. Let’s look around and identify them. It’s a good brain exercise. Let the American Renaissance begin.

Shintaro “Sam” Asano of New Castle, who speaks and writes English as a second language, was named by MIT in 2011 as one of the 10 most influential inventors of the 20th century who’s improved our life. He is a businessman and inventor in the field of electronics and mechanical systems, and is credited as the original inventor of the portable fax machine. He developed a data tablet used in the retail point of sale to capture customer signatures when credit cards are used. Write to him at

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