Beyond the Biological

by Rosie Coates


Throughout Biology Week 2013, the team at science made simple are celebrating all things biological, and we’re certainly spoilt for choice when in comes to subjects for our daily blog posts. It may come as some surprise then that I’ve chosen to look at the hinterland of biology: where the biological brushes up against the other sciences and engineering to generate some pretty amazing devices. I think this area is fascinating not just because its products could have real benefits for many of us, nor because it shows how experts in different fields working together can lead to great things, but also because it shows the interesting philosophical questions that can arise through thinking about and doing science.


Herodotus: The father of History.  Image: Public Domain

Herodotus: The father of History. Image: Public Domain

Frontier of Biology?  Amazing Devices?  Philosophical Questions?  I must be thinking about something totally novel, just discovered, hot off the press. Er, well, sort of. It does get an early mention by the Greek historian Herodotus, though. I’m going to take a look at prosthesis and perhaps extend the definition beyond replacing a missing body part to enhancing the capabilities of our bodies.

Prosthesis has come a long way since Herodotus’ mention of a chap who chopped off his own foot and then fashioned a new one out of wood. Many of us will have seen, and been blown away by, the incredibly high-performance prosthesis used by paralympians like Gold-medal winning Richard Whitehead in the summer of 2012. Advances in sports-science, engineering and materials science mean that prosthetic limbs are now lighter, better-fitting and more responsive than ever before; helping paralympians with prosthesis to achieve phenomenal feats.


Richard Whitehead, London 2012. Photo: Craig Morey (CC-BY-SA)

For many of us the determination, ability and fitness of paralympians is a far more distant thing than the finish line at the start of a marathon (I write this guzzling chocolate, having missed yet another evening swimming session). Similarly thinking about replacing bits of our bodies tends only to seem relevant to us as we get older. Wear and tear to our joints can mean that we need to have them replaced. Ideally of course, we should try to avoid this damage as much as possible, not by avoiding exercise (note to self), but by trying to do it with reduced impact on our joints.  As we describe in our ‘On your marks…Get set’ show, we can do this by spreading the impact out over space or time, by bending our knees when we land if jumping, and by wearing protective clothing when playing impact sports.


Hip replacement joint. Image: Science Museum London (CC-BY-SA)


Like prosthesis, joint replacements have been getting lighter and more hi-tech over the years, and now they are even being 3D printed! This could enable joints to be printed to give a perfect fit for each individual patient, resulting in a more comfortable and more durable joint. A 3D printed prosthetic arm is currently on display at the science museum, showing the possibility of printing bespoke prosthetics complete with sensors and joints in a one step process.  When we investigated 3D printing for our ‘Engineering for life: From Cradle to Grave‘ show we found out that as well as 3D printed joints, researchers have been working on developing 3D printed organs using cells as ‘ink’. That’s quite a long way off, but 3D printing has already been used along with electronics to create an ‘ear’ which can pick up radio signals.

3D printing and electronics combine. Screenshot © science made simple


This ear can’t be used in a patient, although in 2012 two blind British men had microelectronic chips inserted behind their retinas and connected up to their optic nerves, as part of a clinic trial run by Oxford Eye Hospital and King’s College Hospital in London. Both men were then able to tell light from dark after the implant. That’s a long way from being able to see again, but they are working hard to train their brains to understand the signals from the microelectronic chip better.


Heart. Image: Public Domain

Not only does this open the door to offering people amazing possibilities in terms of medical treatments, it also raises some interesting philosophical questions. Most of us can’t pick up the radio with our ears (although there may be times when we wish we could). If doing so becomes a real possibility, we enter the realm of enhancement. Then some important questions arise: Who has access to this technology? Do we end up with two ‘species’ of humans: The Natural and The Enhanced? To create these amazing technologies biologists have had to work with engineers and other scientists. To determine how we use them they may have to extend their working relationships to social scientists. To my mind this is not something to be nervous of, but rather shows what a creative and fascinating field biology is, extending its boundaries to what we might at first sight consider beyond the biological. But then I did marry a sociologist!


We have a wide variety of engineering shows for primary, secondary and family audiences.

We also work in partnership with Tomorrow’s Engineers to inspire the next generation of engineers!


sms group shot with props smallWe are science made simple, a social organisation which promotes science, maths and engineering in schools and to the public. You can find out more about what we do, book us live in action with one of our exciting shows, or sign up to our newsletter and find out what we’re up to!


Tagged with: , , , , , ,
Posted in Biology, Engineering, Technology