Fallen Idols

Why professional athletes make bad role models

UPDATE Since publishing this article, more sporting ‘heroes’ , with impeccable timing, have gone on a rampage. Or, more likely, a keener post-Armstrong media scrutiny in a gold-rush manner has dug up more nuggets of scandal for the headlines. See: AFL/NRL drug scandal, Australian men’s swim team culture, widespread football matchfixing and of course the OJ Simpson-esque Oscar Pistorius trial.

Lance Armstrong On Podium

To many, Lance Armstrong’s confession meant the world had lost another hero… but what really makes a hero in the first place?

The Bible warned us not to worship false idols. I’m not religious and I realise the ancient tome is pretty kooky if read literally, but I will admit that sometimes the bedrock philosophy is solid enough to stand on today. The term ‘false idols’ as carved into Moses’ tablets may have literally meant other gods or faiths, whose worship would presumably result in a bolt of lightning to the eyesocket. Metaphorically, however, it could mean the gratuitous praise of things that offer no soulful fulfilment; to kneel at the altar of the gods of superficially: materialism, vainglory and – shudder – celebrity. It could and should be interpreted as a simple warning. Beware whom or what you put on your personal pedestal, the place where you derive your own values. Don’t be so easily spellbound by those curious forces that make fame and success such seductive attributes in others. Don’t be so quick to worship, for example, certain individuals who captivate the world by overcoming adversity and soaring to unequalled heights of triumph… and then reveal 15 years later that they lied and were all hopped up on goofballs the entire time… The. Entire. Time.

Lance Armstrong

The truth hurts.

You know who I’m super-subtly referring to here: Lance Armstrong, the disgraced American cyclist who finally confessed his career-long doping sins before Oprah Winfrey and many millions of viewers around the globe. Twelve years of accusations and two years of US federal prosecution couldn’t budge him, but two hours on the couch with Oprah had the skeletons hurtling from the closet. For almost the entirety of his professional career, Armstrong aggressively denied persistent allegations that he ever cheated. The world believed him, and those few who doubted were non-believing, heathen naysayers. But, in June 2012, an investigation by the US Anti-Doping Association sensationally found him guilty of using and distributing performance-enhancing drugs and stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles. It rocked the world to its molten core. Until then, he was not only a prodigy on two wheels but one of the world’s most inspirational figures, particularly to cancer sufferers, his countrymen, and other athletes. He was the shining beacon desperately needed by a sport choked by the sinister fog of controversy. When the awful truth finally passed though the same lips that passionately denied allegations for 14-odd years, it sent the world spiralling into a sea of disillusionment Armstrong’s revelation murdered the infallible sportsman icon, and his confession was a eulogy for the death of all things honourable.

His downfall pulled immense strain on the already-brittle tether between ‘professional athlete’ and ‘role-model’. The same questions arose – should athletes be more responsible as role models? Are they role models? How can we make them more accountable for their actions? The most common argument in this troubled discourse rails along the concept of noblesse oblige; that by virtue of their elite status, athletes are duty-bound to behave honourably. That, however, is ridiculous. Professional sport is a self-serving career – athletes honour their contracts, not some high-minded sense of purpose. Former NBA star Charles Barkley once told reporters, “I’m not a role model… Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids”. He was dead right. No matter how famous or wealthy or influential an athlete becomes, they don’t assume any responsibility as some generic, universal role model.

The onus – and this is important – is on us. ‘Oh, but children look up to them…’ Forget the children. Children have children’s logic. Which is to say, none. Kids will idolise anyone they see on TV, so long as they have outstanding comedic fart timing or appear in a music video. The proper role model for a child is obviously the parental figure, as Mr Barkley rightly observed.

The point here is that even after we outgrow our childish frivolity, we still need role models to guide us. The people we, as adults, choose to idolise and perceive as role models are measures of our own intelligence and maturity. It’s for that reason sport stars can make pretty awful candidates.

A moral victory?

Now, let me be clear – I love sport. I follow virtually every code or discipline; I exchange my money for flags, scarves, hats, shirts and other crap bearing the crest of my favourite teams. My life is incomplete without my soccer, or tennis, or social touch footy. I’ll even throw on a netball bib when the opportunity presents itself. I revel in the highs and lows of competition and for that reason adore a great number of top athletes. I’m amazed and thrilled by their particular skills, their style, and – importantly – their dedication to the pursuit of their passion and their dreams. Names such Lionel Messi, Fernando Alonso and Roger Federer evoke images of greatness in my mind. Great athletes wow me and inspire me to try hard at what I do. So, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take inspiration from professional athletes and their achievements. But as people? Well, I don’t know them – but I can certainly imagine that on some level they are outstandingly selfish people, regardless of how humble and good-spirited they seem – because you must be selfish to succeed in sport. You’re a winner or you’re nothing, literally.

Sport turns success a hardcore fetish. In every corner, victory is obsessed over – from the competitors battling to win, to the flag-waving fans in the stands, to the punters feeding a billion-dollar gambling industry. At the end of the day, sport is no more than as an exhaustive series of numbers: records, rankings, time, distance, kilometres per hour, kilograms, goals, points, runs, baskets, medals, knock-outs, and so on to infinity. Success for an athlete is defined by the statistics beside their name. The ‘greats’ are the best, but does that mean the best are great?

Nobody achieves any form of greatness without incredible sacrifice. Sacrifice, though, can still be a selfish act. It just depends on who eventually is to reap the rewards. Athletes make tremendous sacrifices to their lives, socially, financially and emotionally – nobody simply breezes their way to a bag of gold medals and photo on the Weet-Bix tin. But single-minded dedication to the pursuit of glory is exactly that – single-minded. Elite athletes are certainly driven people, hard-working and ambitious people… but does that make them good people?

We decide the answer to those pseudo-rhetorical questions, but to do so properly we must understand there’s difference between admiring an achievement and admiring the person who achieved it. I believe that to truly hold someone in the highest esteem and call them a role-model, their achievements and their journey are no more important factors than the deepest motivations in their hearts. Ambitions and goals are good things but there’s a fine line between personal aspiration and self-aggrandising greed. You shouldn’t necessarily identify a role model by the loftiness of their success; but by the direction in which their moral compass points. Ambition to someone truly great, is not to set out to conquer the world, but to contribute to it in a meaningful way – be it pushing the boundaries of science; advocating social justice and change; or simply striving to make life somehow better for others. There’s an old Greek proverb that declares, ‘a society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in’. It’s not about environmentalism, but altruism. A cyclist doesn’t enter the Tour de France to impart some positive effect on the world of cycling – they pedal away for days desperate to be the dude on the podium in the yellow duds being smooched on either cheek by some French hotties.

Jocks and nerds

So, why do we gravitate towards the athletically-gifted members of our species? From the moment we introduce ourselves to this world as drool-soaked, babbling blank-slates, we observe and imitate with awe. Our simian DNA instructs us to learn by example. It begins with our parents, our siblings and then maybe our schoolyard friends, until eventually we achieve self-awareness of this vast world around us, and notice how it’s populated by regular people like us, and larger-than-life figures who inexplicably arouse our fascination. We take a real shine to people whose imprint on us speaks more for fantasy than practicality. We call them celebrities and channel a disproportionate amount of adoration to them. It’s a lamentable aspect of today’s society, as renowned historian Daniel Boorstin said many years ago:

“Celebrity-worship and hero-worship should not be confused. Yet we confuse them every day, and by doing so we come dangerously close to depriving ourselves of all real models. We lose sight of the men and women who do not simply seem great because they are famous but are famous because they are great. We come closer and closer to degrading all fame into notoriety.” 

Forever heroic.

Forever heroic.

Sport stars are a unique brand of celebrity. We live vicariously through them to taste not just glamour, but glory. We cheer and scream from the grandstands and share the euphoria of victory, but just imagine being the one in the centre, showered in confetti and holding the trophy aloft while Emilio Estevez looks on proudly. Who wouldn’t want to rule the world for even a fleeting second? Athletes have been these heroes for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks portrayed them as physical superhumans, commemorating them in marble as they would Zeus or Apollo. Today is no different – we still call them gladiators, warriors and champions. We commemorate them in posters, advertisements, action figures, brands. So rousing is the unique, intoxicating drama of sport that it’s impossible not to admire the protagonists.

Is this a bad thing? Not really – there’s nothing wrong with passion, but the absurdity of an obsessive love of sport stars becomes apparent when the image of heroism is shattered by a shameful act.  How can you idolise someone whom you can’t respect as a person? They abandon you, leaving you disenchanted and tasting scowling, bitter betrayal. That’s the risk of idolising even the most pious superstars of sport. Four years ago, who’d have envisaged the names Woods and Armstrong to mean what they do now? Nobody. And that makes us the fools. If these titanic figures run afoul on their own iceberg-sized hubris, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to go down with the ship.

Ultimately, it’s our own fault if we go through life revering superficial qualities over true character. After all, it’s easy to bear witness to and be seduced by impressive feats of physicality or skill and overlook feats of intellect or compassion. How many Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, Victoria Cross medallists or Templeton Prize winners can you name? These are extraordinary people who have achieved extraordinary things – but, for obvious reasons you’ll be buggered to find posters of them to adorn your walls (with the possible exception 1961 Nobel prize-winner Rudolf Mossbauer – it wasn’t only gamma radiation that succumbed to the Mossbauer Effect, if you know what I mean).

The Winner Fakes All

The Lance Armstrong media maelstrom was so violent that it almost erased from our memories the past (and inevitable future) athletic falls from grace. The list is huge, but let’s start with Tiger Woods. The squeaky-clean, Disney-approved savant of golf, made a gigantic splash a few years back when it was revealed he was as proficient with infidelity as he was his fairway approaches. Neither his reputation nor his game has recovered since. Major League Baseball is still affected by the mid-2000’s Barry Bonds/Mark McGuire/Sammy Sosa steroid saga, particularly whenever home-run records are mentioned… which in baseball is pretty much always. American quintuple gold medal sprinter, Marion Jones forfeited her glory in 2007 after she was also exposed as a big-time user of the juice. O.J Simpson… full-stop.

Even Tiger done bad.

Even Tiger done bad.

And no, it’s not just those from the U-S-A (‘U-S-A!’) either; in 2000, South African cricket legend Hansie Cronje was caught fixing matches, earning him a life ban. In 1994 Michael Schumacher won his first (of seven) world Formula One world championships by literally crashing his opponent into a wall – he somehow escaped punishment, but no-one ever forgot. Even the beautiful game has an ugly side. Diego Maradona – regarded by most as the world’s greatest footballer – eventually degenerated into a drug-addled lunatic; current England wonder striker Wayne Rooney was busted on separate occasions cheating on his wife with prostitutes, while former England skipper John Terry went and shagged his own teammate’s wife, taking a leaf from the playbook of former AFL great Wayne Carey. The less said about rugby players the better… The list goes on and remember, these are only the big fish who get caught. The amount unreported or unresolved anecdotal evidence of misconduct on or off the field is alarming. It’s systemic, from the lowly grades to the elite leagues, in team sports especially. This type of deviant behaviour is another topic unto itself, but goes to show that the egocentric mental conditioning for intense competition can manifest itself elsewhere, in less-savoury ways.

‘For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?’

Scandals or not, the world needs sport. In its many forms it creates camaraderie; it is a healthy pastime; a stimulating entertainment and at its very core, teaches good human values. But choose carefully to whom you bestow the word ‘hero’. That title carries a contradiction. Should it be someone whose desire is to conquer the world, or someone who wishes to make the world better for others? Athletes become heroes for themselves, not for us or any other. No famous athlete ever aspired to greatness so as to improve the lives of others. Save for the occasional sick kid in hospital.

So, is it really an omen that civilization is in freefall because a once-respected professional cyclist cheated in order to win, and lied for as long as he could get away with? Of course bloody not. It’s foolish to trust blindly the word of somebody who’s conditioned to covet success and victory above all else. Armstrong proved that eventually the yearning for glory can overpower all honourable intentions – like an Anakin Skywalker in lycra. There are better-qualified people in far less-glamorous circles who can shoulder the collective hopes for human dignity. Think about those risking their lives fighting for equality and freedom against oppression [Burmese woman]; think about those committed to expanding our understanding of the universe; think about the philanthropists, the thinkers, the real movers and shakers. Think even of everyday people who are just really freaking wonderful. Athletes, as remarkable and awe-inspiring as they can be, must do more than break records, sign autographs and do the odd charitable deed to deserve our deepest, sincerest admiration.

History teaches us that the most persevering judgement rests with one’s character. You can accumulate all the glory, all the wealth and all the adoration – but all it takes is one loose thread in your moral fibre and everything about you is unravelled. Athletes are humans and humans are prone to error. So many influences can draw an athlete to poor judgement, and it doesn’t necessarily make them objectively evil people, but that is why when we look to someone for true personal inspiration, it’s wise to look outside a world obsessed with ego and success. Instead, look to the impressively courageous, the awesomely intelligent or the inspirationally kind. It’s easier to find such people outside the world of sport. A good place to start is with another bit of advice carved into Moses’ tablet – honour thy father and thy mother.

Winning a wardrobe full of yellow jerseys is one mark of success; but being a good and dependable person is an even better one.


I Am Not Inspired

‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.’

Lord Alfred Tennyson, In Memorium A.H.H

If sentimentality was measured in weight, there wouldn’t exist scales large enough to gauge Lord Alfred Tennyson’s famous little adage.  As with most of those literary excerpts handpicked to become ‘inspirational quotes’, Lord Alfred’s couplet from In Memorium is effortlessly pithy, charming and soothing. To me though, as a supposed source of inspiration, it’s infuriatingly flawed. Really, it’s just crap.  I wish it were possible for me to say ‘screw you’ to the laws of quantum mechanics, travel back in time to 1850s London and deliver a precision karate-chop to the back of Tennyson’s bearded neck as he lowered his quill to the the page. Nothing against old Fred, but I’m sure he’d forgive my extreme measures if he knew how carelessly his words are tossed around today.

‘Better to have loved and lost’? Really? Let’s put it into practice then. Imagine you are handed the best ever chocolate-mint gelato cone the world would ever see. I mean, the best. Ever. One lick of this singularly perfect frozen dessert sweeps you off to a euphoric realm of sugar and dancing pixies. It is without question, the greatest thing you’ve ever tasted. You are so engrossed that around you the world slows to a blur and a hum. But, suddenly , a lose paver meets your foot and the sudden jolt bursts your scene back to reality and you watch, powerlessly, as that delicious icy scoop of your hopes and dreams escapes your grips and plummets down to the earth, splattering over an ant’s nest which has a dog turd on it. You stare at the scene in disbelief, completely shattered. Now, apologies for introducing such a morbid thought and I pray this never happens to you, but let me assure you, it hurts. It hurts like a bastard. One second life is but a weightless ascension to choc-minty nirvana and the next, it’s a sickening thud into the dirty ground of broken dreams.

Now, if you had never been handed this gelato, you’d have been as happy and content as before ‘The Incident’. You will have been blissfully oblivious to the agony of being robbed of what instantly became your definition of perfection. You’d suffer no lamentation, no desperate low – because there was no giddy high. The splattered green remains of the gelato covered in ants and dog poo is a much harder sight to bear when you know just how delicious and joyous it was. Without that knowledge, it would be little more than a typical spilled dairy product, which we all know is nothing to cry about.

Am I belittling the deeper wisdom of the phrase with a hypothetical smashed ice cream? Maybe. Well yes. But is lingering heartache and terminally-unrequited yearning a fair admission price to experience the dizzying thrill and passion of love but for only a brief, momentary spell. I genuinely don’t believe it is. No other thought can grip even the sturdiest mind and violently shake it into fragility than that of rumination – the dreaded ‘what if’ –in love or any other avenue of existence. It is of course just another human truth; about consequence, lessons, growth and Scrubs-style inner-monologues. But there’s no point trying to suture a wound with flimsy musings. The contradiction in what many interpret from Tennyson’s words only feeds the helpless, grasping feelings of frustration and injustice. It doesn’t make anything better. It only makes you want to time travel and karate chop history’s greatest wordsmiths.

Then again, perhaps it’s a matter of perspective. I mean – the choc mint may be gone, but consider that in your state of despair you forget that clasped your other hand is a big scoop of vanilla caramel,  melting away, unseen and untasted…

Deep, huh.

Putting my cynicism and sarcasm aside, I truly do love a great inspirational quote as much as I love the combination of chocolate and mint in gelato-form. Great thinkers and writers are trusted teachers to me. I don’t need to have ever met them , but every word they’ve penned or uttered shines with the immeasurable value of their reputation and their proven wisdom. There’s a reason why great philosophers, writers and leaders command such influence over people, even well beyond their deaths. Their mastery of words and their insight into the human experience is timeless. One of my personal favourite phrases is: “The energy of the mind is the essence of life,” said by the brilliant Greek philosopher Aristotle well over two millennia ago. Immortalising those words into life-affirming proverb is the fact they are direct from the mind of Aristotle: the man who studied under Plato, who studied under Socrates – a product of three formidable intellects and equally formidable beards.

However, with Tumblr and Facebook and Pintrest and the like, the realm of inspirational quotations has been hijacked by melodramatic teenagers with Instagram and first-world problems. Search ‘inspirational quote’ on Google Images and you’ll see nothing but self-help drivel scrawled over silhouettes and fake lens flare. Worse yet, you’ll encounter a famous historical quote, but it will be superimposed on a picture of a barefoot woman in a billowy dress standing on black and white train tracks. And spelled incorrectly. And credited to Justin Bieber.

Intelligence and wit that is applied with kind intentions, completely free of arrogance is one of the best qualities you can find in a human being. Little else is as admirable as an altruistic desire to teach, and to learn so as to teach. The only way we can learn today from the greatest teachers who ever lived is to read and understand the words they left behind, especially those that that escape the pages of tomes and stand out on their own accord, throughout ages. Unfortunately though, the idea of these succinct, inspirational quotes is now the domain of tumblr-keeping teens whose biggest crisis in life was that harrowing time their BFF didn’t reply to a text for like, two whole hours. The important thoughts and works from the likes of Goethe, Voltaire, Shakespeare, Wilde, Nietzsche, Twain and so many others have been sucked into this world that spins on an axis of melodrama and lack of self-awareness. I wince at the thought that thanks to this online phenomenon, out there somewhere, someone has interpreted the wise words of Socrates – ‘Know thyself’ to mean ‘I like holes in my stockings becoz my style is like, soooooooooo individual.’ How cruelly ironic.

So why does ‘better to have loved and lost’ really infuriate me? It’s not Tennyson who deserves a karate chop, not at all. It’s those who repeat the phrase without understanding its true meaning (it was a lengthy meditation on mortality and hope following the death of a dear friend) and in doing so, push it closer towards superficiality, robbing the author of the respect it deserves. Thankfully, even the weighty tribulations of teenage life cannot weaken the poignancy of timeless wisdom. I’m frustrated because it’s disappointing to see great historical works misunderstood because so few in this online generation pause for reflection. These words are not meant to be ‘catchy’. They’re not meant to be photoshopped onto an overexposed picture of a tyre-swing, nor scrawled on a post-it note. They should exist only in your mind and heart, an arm’s length away for when that time comes when you really do need a little comfort or inspiration in your lives, wherever you are. If, as Aristotle said, the essence of life is an energetic mind, then feed it with the wisdom of others and invigorating ideas, think about the words, know them – don’t waste them in a rush to post up on your Facebook wall.

Faux Wisdom

Here are some ‘inspirational quotes’ I collected in a quick Google Image sweep. I learned a couple of things. One, lame metaphors and whimsical (and completely irrelevant) photos are a match made in heaven; and two, some people really should have kept to their day jobs and left the aphorisms to the pros.

No, the oak tree is a living organism that requires nutrients and water to survive. Much of this is absorbed by its roots. As the tree grows larger, its need for nutrients increases, so too does the length of the roots that burrow further and deeper in search of fertile, nutrient-rich soil. Storms are like, in no way related. Stick to being a priest, Herbert.

I’d love to know how Oprah Winfrey ends up being described in future annals of history. I sincerely hope the word ‘philosopher’ or ‘poet’ never appears in the same sentence as her, unless the word ‘faux’ appears before it. There’s no doubting her feelgoodmakey talents and justifiable status as a positive female role-model; but when she serves up nauseatingly saccharine cocktails of mixed metaphors like this, you remember why daytime TV is the  tenth circle of intellectual Hell. Oprah would have been excellent writing cards for Hallmark, but for existential humanist wisdom, I’m afraid shouting in tone-inflections and celebrity friends won’t reserve Oprah a spot in the pantheon of thinkers.

I appreciate the championing of modesty over self-exaltation and integrity over glorify in this statement. But, then almost all credibility disintegrates when its originator is revealed. It’s certainly easy for you to say, Mister Albert ‘Greatest Scientist of All Time’ Einstein! It doesn’t help, either that this particular image is from a Tumblr entitled: ‘I’m the perfect mistake’… by someone called: ‘Melody’…

Unforeseen happiness in life is a comforting concept. Though, I don’t see why Barrymore’s door metaphor is so popular. If anything, it seems to encourage lax home security procedures. I can only think the illustrious Hollywood icon was in cahoots with a shady Los Angeles burglary syndicate, and was subtly persuading fans to not worry about locking their doors at night, so ‘happiness’ (probably the sardonic name of the syndicate) could sneak through and thieve all the jewelry and silk throw pillows and ornate lamps they wished. It’s the only logical conclusion.

Supernatural: The Incredible Biomimics

Phyto-Purification Bathroom by Jun Yasumoto

After a recent binge of David Attenborough DVDs and National Geographic magazines, I’ve happily been up to my neck in the wonders of biology, nature’s mysteries and tribal boob action. Nature is seductively striking, not just for the dramatic visual treats of volcanic storms or epic continental migrations, but for the very mechanics that sustain every living thing. Before I sound too much like the narrated introduction to a lame educational biology video – science’s relationship to nature goes far beyond cataloguing butterflies and differentiating mosses. Science itself learns from nature as much as it learns about it. I’m talking here about the concept of biomimicry – the way in which we borrow nature’s lead and use it to solve our own problems. We’re literality mimicking nature’s design, whether it’s the air-faring anatomy of a bird; the function of our internal organs; or even the infinitesimal characteristics of the humble leaf.

Like the all good big, hairy intelligent apes, we’re brilliant at copying ideas. The human brain wouldn’t have developed to its impressive proportion if our ancestors weren’t monkey seeing and monkey doing. And because intellectual property and copyright laws are human inventions, we can rip off Mother Nature with absolute impunity. In all seriousness though, the ideas we steal are put to some pretty amazing uses – many breakthrough discoveries and engineering marvels would not have happened if we hadn’t taken some cues from our natural world. Some of our incredible achievements seem quite superhuman, but there’s nothing supernatural about it – just very ordinarily natural…

Is it a bird, is it a plane? It’s hard to tell…
The most obvious and significant example of biomimicry derived from our long-held ambitions of flight. Mankind had long observed the way birds would flap their wings and soar to unreachable heights and unsurprisingly, the earliest recorded human attempts were very directly based on the bird’s example. In the ninth century, Arab scholar Abbas Ibn Firnas attached wings to his arms and covered himself in feathers and one century later, the English monk Eilmer created a rudimentary hang-glider. Both men apparently claimed success (despite inevitable crash landings) – but it was not true flight, it was just Buzz Lightyear-style falling with style. Optimus genius Leonardo da Vinci went a few steps further. He spliced passions for anatomy and engineering, by dissecting actual birds and using the knowledge to produce some sophisticated designs. Unfortunately he didn’t live long enough to fully develop his ideas – but considerations of aerodynamics and air displacement was evident in his designs.

After Da Vanci’s time a new method to reach the skies took precedence – being ‘lighter than air’. Blimps and hot air balloons were indeed successful vertical human expeditions, but it was kind of cheating with chemistry. The true believers of physics did not give up however, and eventually in December 1903, the Wright Brothers made that famous four-mile flight over the dusty plains of Kill Devil Hill. Without falling down the bottomless pit of contention over the first ‘true’ flight (pretty much every man and his dog were giving it a go on home-made contraptions at the turn of the century) – the Wright Brother’s machine worked best because they controlled their flight, sort of. By watching how pigeons manoeuvred their bodies in relation to their wings, Orville and Wilbur applied similar principles to the Wright Flier I and its breakthrough three-axis control mechanism. It was the first bonafide airplane; the blueprint for all today’s winged aircraft that conveniently take us to destinations near and far, a modern luxury our grandparent’s grandparents could barely even dreamed of.

And, it would not have existed were it not for the humble pigeon. Maybe you should think twice before calling them ‘winged rats’. Give them some bread – they deserve it.

Faster than a speeding bullet… train

On the subject of transport, closer to earth (well on it actually), streaking across the length and breadth of Japan daily are fleets of ultra high-speed shinkansen, the legendary bullet trains. The shinkansen revolutionised rail travel in the middle of the 20th century by their ability to belt along rails smoothly and comfortably at speeds of well over 300kp/h. That’s stupid fast. Powerful engines and improved track-design were enough to give the first generation of the trains the oomph to reach some brisk speeds, however problems arose, and among them something relatively unique to trains – tunnels. Changes in air pressure whenever a train emerged from a tunnel at pace created a thunderous clap – a sonic boom – that was heard for miles. It was difficult for the trains to operate when scores of disgruntled residents with ringing ears were blocking the tracks with torches and pitchforks.

And so Eiji Nakatsu, a chief engineer of the shinkansen, was sent off to find a solution to make the train quieter. Like the Wrights discovered many years before, an answer could be found in the avian world. A keen bird-watcher, Nakatsu-san noted how predatory owls were remarkably silent in flight. Swooping upon prey with stealth and speed was the owl’s trademark, so he did what any engineer would do and put a stuffed owl (on loan from the local zoo) in a wind tunnel and whipped out the ol’ notepad. “We learned that one of the secrets of the owl family’s low-noise flying lies in their wing plumage, which has many small saw-toothed feathers protruding from the outer rim of their primary feathers,” said Nakatsu. He took the saw-tooth concept to the drawing board and went to work applying it to the train. After giving it a rad engineery name (they called it a ‘vortex generator’) the owl-feather technology was hugely effective at reducing overall noise.

But the perplexing tunnel-boom problem remained. Armed with hulking mainframes, computational fluid design software and probably super-intelligent robot lab assistants – the engineering team were certainly well-equipped to tackle the problem, but again, they need only have consulted our feathered friends to solve the problem. It was the nimble kingfisher that inspired Eiji Nakatsu this time. The fish-hunting kingfisher will dive from air into water with little splash or resistance, which inspired the shinkansen designers to model a new nose based on a kingfisher’s scything beak. It too was a great triumph and resulted in not only a quieter train, but a more energy-efficient and awesome-looking train as well. Nakata would later say, “I learned firsthand that truth can be found in the way life exerts itself in order to persist and carry on in this world.” My man.


It’s not just the world around us that has inspired revolutionary technology, but the world within us – our very own biology is a hugely complex and sophisticated assortment of systems that make us… you know, be alive. There are rich veins (sorry) of inspiration to be found within our own anatomy, and recently that’s just where some scientists have looked to help solve one of the biggest scientific problems facing the world today: climate change. Global warming is largely blamed on man-made CO2 emissions and the greenhouse effect it causes our fragile atmosphere. In crudely simple terms – there’s too much carbon pumped out for the environment to process and the effect manifests as untimely changes to the climate. So, if we can’t reduce our CO2 output – then we’re going to need to shoulder some of the responsibility to help Mother Nature manage it all.

Where can we find such technology to clear the air we breathe? Well, we need only look to the tool that we’ve always used to clear the air we breathe – our lungs. United States-based Eco-tech company, Carbozyme is currently developing what it calls an ‘enzyme-catalysed liquid membrane permeator,” It sound like something that may or may not have crashed into Roswell, New Mexico, but this particular gas-separation technology borrows heavily from very terrestrial examples. Human lungs are one of the body’s greatest feats of organic engineering. The unbelievably thin membrane of the lung and its intricate branch structure gives it an enormous surface area (70 times that of your body itself), which along with certain natural enzymes creates an extremely effective gas-exchange system. Early tests by the team at Carbozyme using such artificial ‘lung’ filters in flue stacks reportedly removed 90 per cent of the CO2 emitted.

Meanwhile, other similar solutions are being inspired elsewhere in nature, such as the CO2 to limestone conversion processes discovered by studying molluscs. Both technologies are still in the development phase, but both testify that the best ideas occur naturally. If only nature had thought of making the atmosphere itself something of a giant lung… actually, no. That’s a very disturbing idea.

Cleaning up crime… and grime. Actually just grime

Cleaning – is there anything worse? Teenagers and beleaguered housewives on daytime infomercials know what I’m talkin’ ‘bout. The endless battle against dirt and grime is such a chore – is there no other way? Well, in fact yes, there is. And no, it’s not a steam-mop or sham-wow, but in fact something small – very small – and quite ingenious inspired by the humble lotus flower The lotus grows in muddy, swampy regions, but its flowers and leaves are always immaculately clean and spectacularly vibrant. They seem to radiate a quality that earned them cultural and religious significance since ancient times in places such as India, China and Japan. But the secret to the lotus’s spotlessness is no miracle – it’s a clever skin with intricately-patterned microscopic bumps that allow no dirt to cling stubbornly to its surface. You can carelessly wave glasses of red wine and shake tomato sauce bottles with reckless abandon around a lotus plant and it will not so much as flinch – virtually nothing can stain them thanks to their unique, extremely water-resistant surface. Like you may notice on a plants’ leaves on rainy days, water doesn’t soak in, but glides off the surface in droplets, this is because they are masters of the hydrophobic principle, allowing only 2-3 per cent of the water’s surface area to come into contact with the leaf – on lotus leaves, this is 0,.3 per cent.

Because of this, contact with water actually cleans the surface of the leaf with remarkable ease, and this has inspired many companies to harness the ‘lotus-effect’ for their own products. Already in existence are stain-proof materials such as nanotex and self-cleaning paint, such as Sto Lotusan, which bears it’s inspiration in its very name. The next steps? There are visions of entirely self-cleaning bathrooms, self-cleaning houses, self-cleaning hospitals – even whole cities. Successful application of lotus-inspired surface technology means less money spent on maintenance, less chemicals flushed through our plumbing systems and less back-breaking hours spent on your hands and knees smiting mildew with a toothbrush. We create the structures with advanced superhydrophobic surfaces and nanotechnology takes care of the rest. Just add water – literally.


Knowingly or not, biomimicry is in some way responsible for countless other engineering feats. Though it as a distinct, defined concept is something of an anomaly of traditional sciences; the schools of biology and engineering sit as two very separate entities. The biologists scurry about with petri-dishes and microscopes, while at the other end of a research campus, engineers sit around a table salivating over trusses and peaking loads. No pun intended, of course. Biomimicry has existed before it was given a name, but now as a recognised scientific concept gathering momentum, it’s a particularly exciting bridge spanning biology and engineering (and one that isn’t as riddled with ethical concerns as other bio-engineering pursuits, which is another topic entirely).

Perhaps most importantly, it champions the theory that the presiding principles that dictate the universe are no different at an atomic level as they are in vast clusters of galaxies. The beauty is that no matter how highly regard our intellect; we’re humbly reminded that we are ourselves nothing but a product of nature, as is everything we ultimately achieve. Superhuman feats will only be seen on the pulp of comic books – we’ll never fly on our own accord, but when nature finds a way, we won’t be far behind.

Howard, Fred (1998). Wilbur and Orville: A Biography of the Wright Brothers.