Going back to that optimum movement, we can dramatically improve modern technology

Designing the Next Golden Age

By Jay Harman

The following text is from a speech given at Bioneers 2004.

Welcome to the new Golden Age! Yes, here, today, right now, in what may feel for some of us like the darkest of times, we are creating a new Golden Age. I think we’re ready for this. We know, deep inside, that a better age for our world is absolutely crucial, and we know it’s possible. That’s why we continue to get up in the morning—to strive for a better world. For me, I know this new Golden Age is possible because of what I’ve learned from nature.


There’s something restful and good and hopeful in that word. When you hear that word, what do you think of? Did you get a picture in your mind of someplace special to you, a sanctuary? A forest? A coast? I have lots of places like that. When I was a child growing up in Australia, I was out in nature any time I wasn’t in school—and many times when I should have been in school. It’s always been the place where I feel completely at home.

One of the first things I noticed about nature was that everything is moving. In fact, that’s true from the quantum level to the cosmological. As Einstein said, in order to exist in a time-space continuum, something must be moving. Electrons vibrate, the earth spins, it’s all moving. Even solid rocks and landscapes are eroding, and the toughest steel is rusting. The universe is a seething, bubbling, swirling cauldron of movement. Now, it’s easy to think of nature’s movements as chaotic. But there is a common shape underlying all that chaos and movement. This entire moving universe and everything in it follows the same path as moving water. What is that path?

As a kid, swimming in the Indian Ocean, I noticed that seaweed would break off in my hand if I tried to grab hold of it. That same seaweed wouldn’t break off in a wild storm. I noticed that all seaweed flows into a particular spiraling shape to let the huge force of water go by. Its very survival depends on the shape it follows. Water flows in the path of least resistance (or least drag), and seaweed simply does what nature insists.

When I realized this, I was captivated, and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since. I started to see this shape all around me and looked more and more closely at its examples. It opened up a whole universe of possibilities. The same shape that I saw in seaweed, I saw in seashells—and in hurricanes. At one point I saw an X-ray of a ficus seashell—its long funnel shape just like the funnel of a tornado. What’s really amazing is that, whether you look at these spiraling shapes from above, comparing the eye of the hurricane and the coiling nautilus, or if you look at them sideways, like the ficus shell and the tornado, they share a common geometry. More examples: the whirlpool of water going down the drain, the spiral of flames in a wildfire, the surprising shape of a human skin pore under an electron microscope. Yes, even our pores are this shape, we perspire in this shape, it’s nature’s ultimate air conditioner. Nature is stunningly elegant in her designs.

These shapes are everywhere, from weather patterns to the flow of blood in our veins to the curl of our eyelashes to the way we breathe to how lava and glaciers flow. In fact, this spiral shape underlies everything from particle decay to galaxies. All things that move or grow do so in this shape and only in this shape.

Obviously, I’m not the first person to notice spirals in nature. In fact, the spiral is the most common symbol across all historical cultures going back at least 50,000 years. The megalithic stone from New-grange is covered with carvings in this shape, the Maoris traditionally decorated their bodies with it, it’s the prow of Viking boats and in the graceful curve in Hokusai’s painting The Great Wave at Kanagawa. All the great civilizations, the Greeks, the Celts, India, China, Native American, Islam, the Tibetans, the Zulus, the Australian Aboriginals, all have recognized this shape and in many cases saw it as a representation of the divine.

When I studied physics, astronomy, mathematics, I found that the great thinkers of recorded history were also fascinated by it. It was referred to as the Golden Spiral or the Golden Proportion and was regarded as having sacred and mystical properties.

• Plato called it the building block of the universe.
• Pythagoras had a secret society built around the spiraling mathematics he saw in nature.
• Leonardo da Vinci spent the last 10 years of his life obsessed by this shape. He drew and painted spiraling flows and whirlpools. In fact, all of the great artists of the Renaissance based their art on the maths underlying this spiral.
• Descartes, the father of science, wrote a major treatise on spirals in nature.
• Bernoulli, the father of fluid dynamics, asked to have the shape inscribed on his gravestone.
• Einstein was the last of the great masters to be enthralled by the Golden Proportion.

All these great minds were captivated by this elegant spiral and the complex mathematics behind it. They saw it as a universal blueprint for both beauty and functionality. But what about science and technology?

I found out how functional this shape was when I was still a boy. I built canoes and boats and found that if I copied the curves I saw in nature, I could make my boats stronger and faster. The more I experimented, the more I realized that this shape is the path of least resistance, the most streamlined course. I learned that in technology, nothing competes with nature’s spiraling efficiencies. But people didn’t seem to realize this. In fact, the world of technology thinks that energy efficiency comes from making things move in straight lines, not curved ones. So, here’s this incredibly efficient shape that nature uses exclusively but science and technology don’t use at all. Why not?

Well, for one thing, the industrial revolution was all about mass production: making cookie cutter forms made out of flat metal and square building blocks. Natural design was literally squeezed out—and until the advance of computers, you could not have mass-produced these shapes even if you did think they’d be more efficient. The industrial revolution was also about plentiful, cheap power. If you needed more speed, you didn’t try to create a more efficient shape, you just added horsepower and blasted your way through. (Never mind global warming.) So here’s the rub: unlike technology, nature never stamps out squared-off boxes, and nature never travels in straight lines.

Here’s what I realized:
• If everything is movement;
• And, if all movement shares a common underlying shape;
• And, if nature uses that shape exclusively;
• And, if modern technology doesn’t use that shape;
• Then, by going back to that optimum shape, we can dramatically improve modern technology. And that can change the world.

So, once I put all this together, what did I do? I decided to show industry that there is more profit in copying nature than in destroying it. I started companies that designed boats. And later I started, with my partner Francesca Bertone, PAX Scientific, a company that designs propellers, fans, turbines, mixers, and pumps that consistently work better than conventional machines. They are quieter and more energy efficient—and they’re even nice to look at. There’s an old saying amongst boat builders: If it looks good, it is good. We inherently recognize natural design because we humans are built to the same design ourselves. Even our bones, muscles, teeth, the cochlea of our ears, are all Golden Proportions.

At PAX, we started with familiar products that are noisy and wasteful, like your kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans. Millions of units are sold each year, with many of them as little as 6% energy efficient, which means that 94% of the electricity is wasted. We retrofitted our fans into those products to reduce noise and increase efficiency, and are licensing our designs to manufacturers. Consumers will be able to buy them across America very soon.

We’re working on water treatment, too. Using our Lily impeller—shaped a bit like the flower after which it was named—we’re able to improve city drinking water without using chemicals. We use a tiny amount of power—less energy than a light bulb—to rotate a 6-inch version of this in a million gallon tank of water, and fully mixed it in less than 24 hours. That saves 85% of the energy compared to what cities are currently using.

The applications of this geometry are endless. Our latest impeller shape looks like seaweed flowing in the current—that’s right where we started from. Recently, a team of fluid dynamicists at Stanford University studied our designs and agreed that these shapes in technology are unique. They create smoother, more streamlined flow. It was a shock for them—it defied common wisdom.

So, these are some of the tools that I’ve found, the tools my team is using to design the next Golden Age. Fully implemented globally—and we’re aiming for this within 15 years—they could put a huge dent in the world’s energy bill, and produce far less emissions and waste. All over the world, hundreds, thousands of people are finding their own tools. By copying nature, they are becoming what Janine Benyus calls biomimics. She coined that term to describe technology that was inspired by nature and explore this new field in her book of the same name: Biomimicry.

I want to mention one more thing I’ve learned from nature, something very important. Do you remember the unlimited optimism of your childhood, when anything seemed possible? And then that child grows up and the world’s mess can suddenly seem very overwhelming. It’s easy to feel small, hopeless, scared, like we’re racing the clock … or maybe it’s even too late.

With nature it’s never too late. Nature is always optimistic; she never gives up. Nature heals all wounds. She pushes up tiny little blades of grass through city concrete and asphalt, she overgrows Mayan cities. Nature keeps putting out billions of seeds, spores, and baby spiders, growing mountains, evolving new species. She is always creating. Nature develops DDT resistant bugs, and others that eat oil and gasoline spills. She’s even creating bugs that get around genetically modified crops—in less than six years.

Nature is a survivor. And optimism is part of her survival strategy. It’s not just okay to feel optimistic, it’s natural—and it’s essential. Combining our human intelli-gence with optimism is the best way we can give back to our earth. Right now, across the globe, we humans, the products of nature, have the resources and the tech-nology to solve just about any problem—if the will is there.

There is a way, if we allow ourselves to be guided by nature’s optimism and nature’s wisdom. We can do it. We are doing it. We will do it.

Born and raised in Australia, Jay Harman’s love of nature began as a boy swimming in the ocean near his home. He began his career as a naturalist with the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, but he quickly demonstrated talents as an inventor. Jay has taken a hands-on approach to his lifelong fascination with natural fluid systems. In the process, he has grown companies that design innovative products, from medical research to his latest company, PAX Scientific. For more information visit paxscientific.com; (415) 256-9900; 1615 Fifth Avenue, San Rafael, CA 94901.

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