Using new perspectives to engineer like a champ

Looks like a tree. Yeah, that's the point.

Some people say that education is really indoctrination, and that it can actually corrupt your pure, unique thoughts and kill creativity. While this is totally untrue, it can be said that when you’re educated to be an engineer, you’re basically taught to think a certain way. The engineering way, that is. This is good for the most part, because engineering is all about being systematic and solving problems very thoroughly and completely; those are all habit and mindset things, not simply “knowing how.” You need to have those habits and mindsets–to think that way.

But sometimes being taught to think a certain way makes some things harder. If the best minds can’t solve a problem, it’s because they’re all thinking the same way–they need a fresh mind thinking on it, who might have a clearer view of the situation.

A real world example: we’ve been working on improving solar-power technology since we invented it. We’ve got vast arrays of reflectors to melt sodium, we’ve got weird and unique convection-based wind tunnels, and we’ve got standard photovoltaic cells, all to convert light to energy. But in doing all this, we missed a pretty big–a pretty obvious–thing: trees.

Can't you see Fibonacci in the branches? Aidan can.

Trees are probably the oldest light-to-energy converters on Earth, using photosynthesis to make sugar. By the grace of natural selection, the trees with the best arrays of leaves (the part that collects the light–kind of important for photosynthesis) would flourish. Right? So naturally that means that trees must have a pretty efficient way to distribute their leaves.

When you plot the Fibonacci sequence to a spiral, it creates something called the Golden Curve, which shows up in nature all the time.

Turns out they do. And a 13 year old–a kid in middle school–figured this out when thousands of professional engineers have not. Aidan Dwyer noticed that the angles that branches grow out of the trunk of a tree reflect the Fibonacci sequence, and tested to see if this was more efficient.

Guess what? It was. About 20% more efficient, in fact. That’s a huge jump, and he didn’t even mess with the technology in his solar cells. Just the arrangement of them. Impressive!

No doubt this kid is going to go on to be an engineer, if he’s already solving problems like this, as young as he is. It’s not about knowing calculus, fluid dynamics and C++ (though those things sure help), it’s about using the tools you have to solve a problem gracefully, thoroughly and completely. Remember that nature is one of the nicest tools you have, sometimes, since it’s got billions of years of evolutionary improvements behind each of its designs.
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