Saturday, 28 January 2023

A Review of Cats' Paws and Catapults by Steven Vogel

A pretty great book! Scrap was trying to get me to read this for aaaages and I REFUSED! But I am glad I have read it now. 


Why do nature and mankind design things so differently?

This is a pop-sci book and it reminded me again that I am fucking stupid. Most of the difficult (for me) stuff is at the beginning, like; what’s the difference between Strength, Strain, Stiffness, Toughness, and Resilience, which in terms of building things are all quite distance properties of things.

I definitely knew this briefly at some point reading this and have forgotten since, much like most of my STEM education since birth.


One of my favourite things about this book is the way it highlights and discusses just what we *don't* know and the extent to which we don't know it.

Human knowledge like an ink blot expanding on plain paper, the area of the ink blot ever growing but if the line of the perimeter of the blot is measured, (made fractal and jagged by the grains and curls of the paper as it drinks in the ink) then this line, the zone between white and dark, between known and unknown, is growing and growing and growing all the time.

Yet we rarely feel this in our daily lives, that the abyss of unknowing is opening endlessly before us. Instead we feel the gradual advance of human knowledge, its absorbing and explaining of new domains.

Of course this is true; the ink blot is gradually spreading, so man may stand in its centre and say "I am the king of the ink blot and my empire is ever-growing". Yet, an invisible rider might dash along the rim of the ink blot and say "I am the lord of the wastes and as your Empire grows, so does mine, invisible to you".


- Mental 'distance' from the unknown; unknown things are more and more abstruse and difficult to describe to normal people. Previously you could say, "what is the sun?", but now you need an education in physics to understand what we don't know about physics.

- Recursive tendency of reason; it often 'curls back' upon itself explaining itself in terms of itself and so reason is often blind to gaps in itself.

- General logical positivist boosterism of society, (not that bad), and collapse of scientific enquiry into basically an ADHD marketing scam (quite bad).

- Fundamental difficulty of conceptualising 'the unknown' as most of the unknown is very unknown so we don't even know it is there to talk about it, and the bits we do know about are only somewhat unknown since we can actually conceive of them.

At the end of many of his chapters, Vogel takes us into some of the difficult questions about nature and humanity and what and why each does they way they do (?)

Why does nature have only one confirmed example of rotational movement, why does she not use metals, why no jet-powered birds?

Simple questions but coming at the end of complex and descriptive chapters about the structures of nature, types of levers and limbs and the development of human and bird flight, Vogel is allowed, or he provides himself with enough context and impetus to, shape the questions as something other than just a blank 'well we don't know'.

Reading this, one desired strongly to voyage to other planets with life to find out just how much of earth evolution is 'normal actually' and how much is just 'well it was random but it sort of works so we stuck with it'. These are unanswerable and, without the strong armature of detail and imagination Vogel casts around them, not unaskable, but mutely  irrelevant, self-consuming questions.


As well as being an educational textbook Vogel has a philosophy which I approve of and agree with.

Which is; that the engineering domains of humanity and nature are different houses, best regarded differently. That while we have learned a lot from nature, many examples of direct copying are overstated or illusory, that often we have done a lot better when we have stopped trying to copy nature, done what we can to learn and understand basic principals and, when creating, done things our own way (i.e. abandoning years and years and years of attempted 'birdlike' flight, which was never going to work for us).

It's a distancing from the 'nature is always beautiful and always first and always right' view, but it is not the opposing Melkorist view either, but a careful and rigorous separation of two domains, insisting that each be accounted for by its own rules and considered separately, without worshipping or degrading either.

Its... sensible? It takes an entire book and point layered on careful point, with histories, diagrams and descriptions to make and reinforce this by the end, very sensible and elegant concept which once received, seems like the simplest thing in the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment