Growth Mechanics


James Adrian

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      This article concerns one particular lesson that can be learned from life forms. They often grow from a small particle into a large structure. This aspect of living things can be abstracted from all the others (such as inheritance, healing, consciousness and death). If imitated, this growth feature could define a technology that would someday enable us to construct particles or small objects capable of growing to become things that are much larger.

      Growth Mechanics is the study of how things may grow (in the sense of getting physically larger) by utilizing substances, energy, and programed control of chemical and mechanical events.

      The importance of such a technology would be extremely difficult to overestimate. It would allow us, for example, to design a pocket-size object that could be thrown in the sea to produce a large boat, or almost anything else. It would need to obtain its materials of construction (in this case, from the sea water) and the requisite energy from the environment or from other machines.

      It seems obvious to me that this aspect of living things is attractive as a subject of scientific inquiry. The principles involved are mysterious, but they are definitely not unknowable. Even now, the matter is not science fiction. Biologists investigate starfish that can regenerate a missing limb and lizards that can regrow a lost tail. It is hoped that stem cell research will eventually teach us how the human body might regrow or reform damaged organs. The Genome Project and other projects related to it will show us more specifically how DNA operates as a code or program that guides the mechanical construction of a body.

      Separated from the context of life and DNA, the mechanical, structural and kinetic insights we need in order to make objects grow in this way are likely to be known before long. One approach is nothing more than the prodigious application of present-day engineering. Chemical assembly, electrochemical actions performed by computer chips, miniaturized electrostatic robots on a chip and many other technical means could be applied to this goal. Better imitating goal-oriented rational unconscious decision making in our programming and facilitating it with more appropriate computer hardware design could make the separation of seawater and the synthesis of chosen substances more efficient; but why strain our brains to pull off such a stunt?

      Such knowhow will provide us with great economic benefits. Profitable applications will be found in all of the construction and manufacturing industries. In this case, nature is pointing to yet another form of automation; and every time we make a leap in automation, life gets better for everybody.