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How a kingfisher, an owl, & a penguin helped redesign Japan’s Shinkansen

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How is Japan’s Shinkansen, a long-nosed bullet train that travels up to 240–320 km/h (150–200 mph), like a kingfisher? Or an owl? Or an Adélie penguin? In this video from Vox and 99% Invisible, we see how these three birds influenced the 1989 redesign of this high speed train with the help of birdwatching and biomimicry.

Earlier models were rounder and louder, often suffering from the phenomenon of “tunnel boom,” where deafening compressed air would rush out of a tunnel after a train rushed in. But a moment of inspiration from engineer and birdwatcher Eiji Nakatsu led the system to be redesigned based on the aerodynamics of three species of birds.

Nakatsu’s case is a fascinating example of biomimicry, the design movement pioneered by biologist and writer Janine Benyus. It’s the idea that big challenges in design, engineering, and sustainability have often been solved before through 3.8 billion years of evolution on earth. We just have to go out and find them.

The video is chock full of excellent ways that we can learn from prairie dog burrows, shark skin, lotus leaves, ecosystems, and more. Related reading: Circular economies.

We love biomimicry and the solutions that it can yield. Watch these videos next: Think Like a Tree – Problem solving with nature’s best ideas, mimicking shark skin to combat superbugs, How Ingenious Animals Have Engineered Air Conditioning, and can Namib Desert beetles help us solve our drought problems?

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