“Good lord, what’s that stink?” Chester the gecko asked.
He had walked down from the crack in the ceiling tile and sidled up next to his friend Marvin. Marvin simply gestured with his head toward the human in the room below them. The man sat at a large, high table that was covered with glass containers of all sizes and countless odd shapes. On the table in front of him, a small flame danced at the top of a metal tube, boiling a yellowish liquid in one of those strange vessels. Hazy steam rose up from the boil, into a long, looping tube, and then dropped, in liquid form once again, into a flat, enclosed pan.
“What’s he up to now?” Chester continued.
“Seems to be trying to get things to stick to that wall,” Marvin said. “He’s been at it all day.” Marvin nodded toward the wall behind the man. It was covered with an odd assortment of objects. Two posters. A few small photos. A narrow rack of three coat hooks. A plain mirror of medium size. More random items dotted the wall, and still more littered a table to the man’s left.
“That stuff he’s boiling… the goop in that pan,” Marvin continued, “he keeps slathering it on those things, and slapping them on the wall. Honestly? I think he’s finally lost his…”
The mirror had slid form its bond and hit the hard, tiled floor, leaving an ugly yellow streak on the wall as evidence of its fall. The shatter yanked the scientist’s focus from the flame, and he turned to the wall just in time to see the two posters sluff their corners and follow the mirror to the floor. The scientist slumped over in his chair and buried his face in his hands. From their perch high in the corner of the room, the geckos Marvin and Chester could hear the man muttering something, and felt certain it included many words they would never repeat in polite company.
The man got up, a defeated slouch to his movements, and began to remove the other objects form the wall. But where the mirror and the posters had pulled off as
they saw fit, the small photos refused to budge. The scientist pulled harder on one, and half of it ripped off in his hand. A second came off whole, but took a sizable chunk of wall paint with it.
“Aarrgghhh… mmmffff… shhhtttt!” More unintelligible, unrepeatable words from the scientist, and he dropped back into his chair.
“Poor guy,” Chester said. His gaze was pulled back to the flame by the gurgling of the yellow potion, and then the stink came back to him. “Agh… that smell.”
“I know!” Marvin added. “Can’t possibly be good for him. I haven’t been in here nearly as long as him, and I’m already a bit dizzy.”
“Damned hard way to make something stick, seems to me,” Chester said. “All that fuss, flame and stink just to hold something up on the wall.”
“Mmm Hmm,” Marvin nodded in agreement.
“I mean…” Chester stopped himself, pulled his front right foot off the wall, and gazed at its underside. “I mean…”
“What?” Marvin asked, mildly annoyed.
“I wonder…” Chester continued, and stopped again.
“Chester,” Marvin said impatiently, hoping to goad a full sentence out of his friend.
“Yeah… it just might work…” Chester continued.
“Chester, I swear to…” Marvin was losing all patience. But then Chester snapped out of his fog and turned to Marvin with a grin. He said nothing.
Chester cut him short simply by raising his right foot a little higher, and holding the underside up for Marvin to see. Sill grinning, still saying nothing, Chester nodded to his foot, nodded down to his other three feet, which still were still firmly gripping the wall, and then nodded down to the scientist. Marvin looked on coldly for a moment. And then he got it.
“Oooh! You think? How?”
They huddled, and hatched a plan.
Moments later, Marvin was down on the wall amidst the scientist’s gallery of stuck objects. Or the ones that remained stuck, anyway. He positioned himself in an open space between a small clock, a framed impressionist print, and a dirty coffee mug that the chemist must have slapped up there in a moment of particularly keen frustration.
By now, the chemist had moved to the floor, where he slumped in the corner, seemingly oblivious to the shattered glass and rumpled paper around and under him. A movement caught his eye. He looked up to his test wall, where he saw… a gecko? Seeing one of these little lizards in the building wasn’t all that strange in these parts. They did sneak indoors from time to time. But…
“What the hell?” the scientist said. He leaned forward a little and sharpened his gaze. “Are you…?” He couldn’t bring himself to say it out loud. But right there on the wall, the little bugger seemed to be… dancing. He was bobbing his head side to side. He was shuffling his hips (do geckos have hips?!) back and forth. And, one at a time, with each head-and-hip sway, he was snapping his little feet up off the wall with… flair? Yes. The whole sequence had an unmistakable chicka-wow-wow groove to it. And the timing was immaculate. The chemist blinked his eyes hard and long, but when he opened them again the gecko was still in his groove.
“And are you smiling?” then chemist asked (which of course Marvin was, for he simply loved to dance).
“I’m losing it,” then chemist said. He raised himself off the floor, and turned back to his lab bench, where… “What the hell?” he said for a second time that day. For while Marvin danced, Chester had taken up his position at the scientist’s microscope. He lay on his side, all lanky and stretched out as if her were posing for an underwear catalog. Except that he had his right leg stretched out a little extra, so that his right rear foot lay directly under the pointy end of the microscope, bottom side up.
“Dammit!” the scientist yelled. And, fueled by the day’s frustrations, he grabbed a meaty scientific journal from the table, rolled it up tight, and cocked his arm for a big, brutal swat. But at the top of his backswing, under his raised arm, to the right of the scope, he noticed the video monitor. It was turned on, and was showing in stark black and white detail the underside of the gecko’s foot. The scientist stayed his swat and, with arm still raised, glanced back at the microscope gecko. Chester grinned widely and gestured toward his foot, which he was waiving in a showy display under the scope.
Then the scientist remembered the gecko on the wall. Arm still raised, he looked over his shoulder. Marvin, thrilled to have the spotlight again, brightened his own smile, and peppered his dance with still more groove. The spice worked. For this time the scientist caught particular notice of Marvin’s feet, which continued to pulse cheerfully on and off the wall. Then the scientist’s gaze shifted to the yellow smear where the mirror had been, to the ripped photo, to the bare cement where the paint had been, and then back to the gecko’s dancing feet. His arm lowered, and he turned back to the monitor, where Chester continued to display his foot like a pro on a TV shopping channel.
Except, magnified by the power of the microscope, it didn’t look like a foot at all. What the scientist saw instead, in beautiful detail, were the teensie, tiny hairs that covered the gecko’s foot pads. It looked like an aerial photo of some make-believe forest. Countless little stalks stood tall, each giving way at its tip to a bushy canopy that was both fluffy and spikey at the same time.
“I’ll be damned,” the scientist said. He gently placed the journal back on the table, and burst out in his own grin, every bit as wide as Chester’s and Marvin’s.
Seven months and a day later, the scientist was onstage at the big annual conference, wrapping up his talk.
“And so, as you’ve seen, we’ve found this new adhesive surface, inspired by nature, to hold tremendous promise. Thank you.”
The room burst into applause. The scientist bowed somewhat awkwardly, and then glanced down at his briefcase, which was tucked behind the podium. Chester and Marvin smiled back at him from their perch in the side pocket of the case. Chester clapped in a dignified manner befitting the occasion. Marvin gestured enthusiastically with his front right foot, as if to give their friend a big thumbs up.
Except not quite. Because geckos don’t have thumbs, silly.
The notion that geckos can dance, or pose like underwear models, may or may not be true. But what is most certainly true is this: The exquisite form of a gecko’s foot, and its marvelous ability to grab firmly to a wall, yet also release effortlessly, has inspired scientists to design incredible new adhesives. Ingenious adhesives, inspired by nature, that also happen to be far better for nature.
These advances rise out of the brilliant fields of Biomimicry, and Green Chemistry. I encourage you to explore these worlds further, because the wonder of the facts far outpaces that of the fiction. Except for the groove of a gecko’s dance. That’s best of all.
Center for Green Chemistry & Green Engineering at Yale (featured in the photo above)