Cuttlefish are awesome. If you didn’t know how awesome before, I recommend this TED:
As you can see, these aquatic animals are pretty cool. Not that I wish I was one, or that I have any great desire to change my skin pigmentation at will. Truthfully, most of my bad hair days come from having only half flathead and half ‘fro. Adding color to the mix doesn’t seem wise. But there are things about my own body I’d like to control better – like my flailing limbs, my ability to stand, and my general athleticism. The cuttlefish is one up on me in this.
He may also be one up on me in big-screen televisions as well. Evidently the way a cuttlefish changes colors is by membrane distancing. Think of it like a light table, or a window, where a colored piece of paper covers the glass. If you put a white piece of paper right on top, you can still see the color through it pretty strongly. If you lift the white paper slowly, the further you get away, the less color you see, until all you can see is white. That’s what a cuttlefish does, on a large scale and with multiple layers (and without a light source on the inside). Eventually such substances will be used in television screens and probably as colored electronic paper, all because of a color-changing swimmer that we might not have learned from in the past, even though we wondered at him.
Another place we might have learned more readily from is our own past. Take cathedrals – they are pretty awesome, but most of the time we think that we’ve learned all we can from them, technologically speaking. Most cathedral builders operated on the ‘you broke it, you bought it’ principle. If the building came crashing down while being constructed, the builder was probably dead inside. Balanced with that was the constant pressure to make the next one bigger, grander, and better. There was a constant testing process to see what could withstand nature and the elements, and the price of failure was high.
We don’t have that anymore. We’ve freed ourselves from the rigor of masonry building materials and the solid facade, and learned to anticipate the vagaries of nature with various codes and rules. Supposedly this makes our buildings safer, but it may not have made us wiser. We don’t have to take the surrounding environment into account, so by and large, we don’t. There’s this highly prevalent view about reflective glass and how it doesn’t intrude into the skyscape of a city – which it might not, visually for some humans. I’m not so sure what a goose would think about a new glass ‘scraper along a traditional migration route, or how a bat might perceive such a surface. In general, the environment of such buildings is about control of the surroundings, not adaptation to it. According to John Ochsendorf, adaptive is something traditional construction had to be. I think there’s a lesson there, about what we know, or think we know, and how best to truly use it.