The most common criticism of the fantasy genre is that it can lead to unhealthy escapism. Why settle for the boring, drab world in which you live, when you could immerse yourself in a world full of flying beasts, floating cities, and big baddies that need to be taken down? For me, fantasy stories are sources of inspiration – why can’t we built floating cities? Fantasy, by definition, revolves on places and things that have never been, and most reasonably, never will be. But that doesn’t mean that Fantasy isn’t based on real world people, locations, or history. However, it can be easy to forget that the world we live in isn’t really drab or boring, it’s teeming with all sorts of life and features bizarre locales. At times, it seems magical.
Taking inspiration from life to influence design is called Biomimicry. For example, scientists study the tardigrade to learn how the creature survives in such extreme environments (such as the vacuum of space) to design materials to protect humans in similar environments. Extreme environments, such as Deserts or the Arctic, are great areas to find inspiration. For instance, the Atacama Desert, which receives just a few millimeters of rain per year, hosts plants that have adapted by harvesting marine fog. Microorganisms in the high-pressure deep sea have developed thick waxy cell membranes. Other organisms have evolved resistances to high alkalinity, cold, heat, and even radiation. There are numerous examples of biomimetic designs and unique creatures. You can find some of them at the Ask Nature, a site developed by the Biomimicry Institute.
Similarly, we can also take inspiration from the environments themselves. The Earth features many types of ecosystems, some of which are quite bizarre and look like they belong in a fantasy world rather than our world. Through a combination of biology, geology, and chemistry, magical ecosystems can result.
The previously mentioned Atacama Desert has incredibly salty soil. The salt crystals in the soil attract water from the air, allowing microbes to gain access to water. Mono Lake in California has soil and water full of toxic metals due to mine runoff. The water is highly saline, has a high pH, and has dangerous levels of arsenic. Even so, brine shrimp live in these waters, and eat bacteria and plants adapted to these levels. It is one example of arsenic-based life.
In a uranium mine in Oklo, Gabon, Africa, a French nuclear community noticed small but significant amount of Uranium-235, an isotope used in nuclear power reactors. Uranium is a key ingredient for nuclear reactors, which work on the principle of nuclear fission (splitting an atom to release the energy inside). Commercial reactors need at least 3% of U-235 to function. The land in Oklo reached 3% U-235 and with the assistance of the surrounding groundwater, started a naturally occurring nuclear fission reactor. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the reactor stopped about a million years ago, but scientists are studying the site to see how natural environments are dealing with the radioactive materials to inform how to deal with man-made nuclear waste.
The Blood Falls is a popular unique system. Located in Antarctical, the Blood Falls flows from a trapped lake high in salinity and iron (which gives the red color). Within the red water, microbes have evolved independently from the rest of the world, and have adapted to exist in an environment with no light, little heat, and no oxygen. You can find additional examples of natural wonders at Atlas Obscura.
There are also naturally occurring phenomena, such as bioluminescent bays, waterspouts or fire whirls, which, while not as inspiring in an engineering context, exemplify the marvelous danger of nature.
These locations offer insight into solving many engineering challenges. Often times, while engineers struggle with challenges, the Earth has already found a solution (after all, the Earth has been around much longer than we, as humans, have). In an earlier blog post, I mentioned the design of wastewater treatment plant based on the biogeochemical cycle of a lake with high pH to produce a purer Syngas and byproduct for cement production. By studying how these ecosystems function, we have opportunities for engineering designs that emulate these environments and incorporate natural processes and resources. We can also develop methods of utilizing unique ecosystems for the benefit of society by having them serve as “naturally occurring factories.” Our world is full of natural wonders that we can learn from to engineer systems that work with our environment, rather than against it. By doing this, we could actually create places we never thought would have existed. Our world is a magical place, we can contribute to the magic.