As India prepares itself for the arrival of the bullet train between Ahmedabad and Mumbai, and debates its viability or usefulness, we look at how nature was an inspiration for the early bullet train’s redesign.
This video outlines the history of how bullet trains were engineered as part of a larger argument that sought to exemplify the usefulness of nature as a tool for engineers.
It illustrates the ingenuity with which the Japanese resolved a problem they faced because of the loud noise emitted by the Shinkansen bullet train. The noise came from a myriad of sources, but the real issue arose when the train sped through a tunnel. It ended up pushing waves of atmospheric pressure out of the tunnels as it exited them. In doing so, a boom sound was emitted that could be heard 400m away. This created a problem, specifically in dense residential areas.
Eiji Nakatsu, the general manager of the technical development department, was a bird watcher and engineer. He based different components of the redesigned bullet train on different birds. The owl’s feathers inspired the pantograph – the rig that connects the train to the electric wire above – which reduced the noise.
The Adelie Penguin inspired the pantograph’s supporting shaft. This design allowed them to lower wind resistance. The Kingfisher’s beak inspired the nose of the train, as its unique shape allowed it to catch prey in the water without making a splash. The cumulative effect was that the redesigned bullet train was 10 per cent faster, used 15 per cent less electricity and addressed the issue of the noise level.
Without stating it as such, Nakatsu had utilised a specific style of design – biomimicry. It is essentially designing the world we live in along the lines of basic principles and ideas that already exist in nature. This movement was pioneered by biologist and writer Janine Benyus, who Vox roped in for an interview. She is the co-founder of the Biomimicry Institute, a non-profit organisation that encourages creators to look at nature and biology for solutions to man-made problems.
Interestingly, she also makes the argument for an economic ecosystem that should be based on the principles of biomimicry. Her belief is that we should be following a “circular economy”, which boils down to having no by-products from manufacturing that end up at landfills, and instead that by-product should be used for some other purpose.
The video poses an interesting idea in a cogent and coherent manner. It also expertly stylises its content, making for an interesting and informative watch.