THE TECHNOLOGY OF LIFE - MACHINES THAT GO SQUISH
2012/2013, Semester 2
University Scholars Programme (University Scholars Programme)
Modular Credits: 4
Can we learn how man-made technologies work by taking a deeper, more quantitative look at how living organisms function? The nature of physical law imposes unique constraints on the evolution and functioning of living organisms – the same constraints (and opportunities) we encounter when inventing technologies. This module will investigate how living organisms of all shapes and sizes have evolved creative solutions around natural constraints, and indeed turned these into opportunities for amazing feats of ‘natural’ engineering. To do this, students will learn important engineering fundamentals such as fluid mechanics and chemical and heat transport. The overall goals are to assemble a conceptual toolkit to analyse physical and chemical technologies, and to also highlight how nature can inspire new man-made technologies.
Module Learning Outcomes
To understand and use numbers, dimensions, units and measurements to put natural phenomena in animals and plants on a firm, quantitative footing.
To understand and use elementary physical laws in mechanics and thermodynamics to quantify the relationships between measurable quantities.
To appreciate, classify, understand and quantify fluid phenomena and motion in a variety of contexts in living organisms.
To appreciate and quantify the crucial role of chemical and heat diffusion in maintaining the vital processes of life.
To carry over the concepts learnt into the realm of physical and chemical technologies. Strong links to current research, such as in lab-on-a-chip technologies, will be established.
1. Number, Measure and Shape
The constraints imposed by nature crucially depend on size and shape – an ant experiences a fundamentally different ‘nature’ compared to an elephant. Therefore, we will first examine the role of quantitative measurements of size, shape and motion in analysing natural phenomena. The importance of dimensions, units, scales and measures will be emphasized with examples from a variety of physical systems, both natural and man-made.
2. Physical Law
The remarkable success of the physical sciences is built on the foundation of physical laws that relate measurable quantities such as mass and motion. Here we will recount key physical laws such as Newton’s laws of motion and, after a brief epistemological excursion on concepts such as ‘force’, move onto the practical use of such laws in measuring, relating and understanding the inner workings of living organisms.
3. Fluid motion
Fluid motion is ubiquitous in living organisms of all shapes and sizes, whether it is as internal circulation of blood in mammals or externally in the bizarre swimming behaviour of aquatic insects. Here we will first look at the tremendous diversity of fluid behaviour, from microorganisms to whales. We will then move onto the fundamentals of fluid motion, learning the key equations and principles that govern it in several different contexts. We will touch upon several topics: (1) The properties of gases and liquids, (2) laminar and turbulent flow, (3) Bernoulli’s theorem and pumps, (4) surface tension and its (sometimes) bizarre effects in the microscopic world, (4) the motion of drops and bubbles etc.
4. The motion of molecules and heat
The functions of life are crucially dependent on the ability of living organisms to regulate both chemical (molecular) and heat transport at various scales, from single cells to entire organs. Here we will learn the fundamentals of such transport phenomena, with a special focus on the similarities between the diffusion of heat and matter, and their relevance in living organisms.
See detailed lesson plan
Assessment will be primarily by way of individual assignments (three are envisioned – one each for Units 1-3) and a group project on the theme of biomimetic technologies. Each individual assignment will be composed of (but not limited to) the following elements:
Quantitative questions – these will involve making simple estimates/calculating numbers and important physical quantities pertinent to the description of a given natural or man-made technology or scenario. These will be calibrated to challenge a wide audience. The implications of the calculated numbers will require discussion. Some questions may require very elementary experiments (capturing and analysing videos of moving animals/objects).
Essay questions – these will test the ability of students to synthesize and critique the module contents and apply them broadly. For example, students may be asked to list and explain a few related phenomena from their daily lives that broadly fall into the conceptual umbrella developed during class. Alternatively, students will be given short articles from the general scientific literature and asked to critique the contents. Essays supported by numbers and critical discussion will be encouraged.
‘Design’ questions – all sorts of ‘what if’ or ‘why not’ questions will be posed here, and will help students work through the idea of designing (or evaluating the feasibility of) new tools/devices from the concepts learnt in class. These will be open-ended, and will likely require students to search for and select the right material properties/numbers pertinent to the system at hand from all available sources.
Workload Components : A-B-C-D-E
A: no. of lecture hours per week
B: no. of tutorial hours per week
C: no. of lab hours per week
D: no. of hours for projects, assignments, fieldwork etc per week
E: no. of hours for preparatory work by a student per week
Text and Readings
Selected readings from ‘Life’s Devices’ by Steven Vogel (Ch. 1-8, 11, 15) and selected research papers in general science journals (Science, Nature etc.)
1. The Physical Sciences: An Integrated Approach by R.M. Hazen and J. Trefil.
2. The Feynman Lectures in Physics, Vol I by R. P. Feynman, R. B. Leighton and M. Sands
3. Life in Moving Fluids, by Steven Vogel
Not applicable to USP First-Tier modules. USP Advanced modules (Course-Based Modules, CBMs) may state general pre-requisite skills/knowledge. Prerequisites should not make reference to NUS modules.
Not applicable to USP modules.