February 20, 1995
Leonardo da Vinci designed ships’ hulls based on the elegant movement of fish in water. The Wright brothers learned designs for flight from the turkey vulture, as did Paul MacCready, builder of the Gossamer Condor. The latticework for London’s Crystal Palace was inspired by the veins and ribs of the waterlily Victoria regia, while Le Corbusier’s “form follows function” had been discerned by Darwin years before in his study of orchids.
In The Sand Dollar and the Slide Rule, Delta Willis explores the relationship between natural forms and human design. In so doing she brings to life a fascinating group of architects, physicists, and biologists devoted to a new science of form called Construction Morphology. Like the German physicist we meet who studies trees to refine car parts, they all look to nature to find blueprints for unparalleled efficiency.
In a fluid and wide-ranging narrative, Willis’s focus shifts from the insights of Darwin and the organic influence on Frank Lloyd Wright, Antoni Gaudi, and Gustave Eiffel, to an examination of the lightweight strength that Buckminster Fuller called Tensegrity, to the construction of the ornithopter in Bruce Willis’s movie Hudson Hawk. Along the way, she shows the relationship between Greek temples and human anatomy, between pterodactyls and flying squirrels, between the faces of Miss Universe contestants and the divine math of the Golden Mean.
But her primary guide through this rich and evocative subject is the work of D’Arcy Thompson, the Scottish biologist who studied the role of forces such as gravity and wind in determining the shape of organic structures. It is through his basic insights that she is able to see the relationship between a butterfly’s proboscis and the shaft of an oil drill, or the dome of a sea urchin and the dome of St. Mark’s Cathedral. Economy and flexibility are the grand themes, now made more precise through the formulas of thermodynamics and biomechanics.
This is science writing that is both substantive and whimsical, exploring the fractals of Benoit Mandelbrot alongside Bucky Fuller’s “Dimaxion car.” It marries an appreciation of natural form and human design with an understanding of how these blueprints from nature are essential for improving the human condition.
A former vice president of Survival Anglia Ltd., Delta Willis has reported on environmental issues in Africa, Papua New Guinea, Australia, and China, and developed documentary programs for Oxford Scientific Films. In addition to her work as a photographer, she has written for Audubon, Outside, and The Encyclopedia of the Environment, and also serves as chief editorial consultant for the Fodor’s Guide to Kenya, Tanzania & Seychelles. Her two previous books focused on human evolution in Africa: The Hominid Gang and The Leakey Family. She lives on a houseboat moored on the Hudson River.