The Butterfly’s Gaze

The turtle swims
the open seas,
her shell
a compass needle –
magnetic whispers
guide her way,
True North
a gentle force,
of hidden paths
and steady hands.

The mantis shrimp
scans the coral reef
in beams of
splintered light,
beyond the reach
of our mind’s eye –
a vibrant mosaic
within the ocean’s
deep embrace.

Butterflies flit
on painted wings,
a hidden ultraviolet script
in daylight’s light caress.
Pixels capture their dreams,
revealing cells,
and life,
and death.
Their world unveiled
and caught –
transforming unseen truths
to snatch the light
once lost
to land and sea.

Artistic depiction of a butterfly above the bioinspired imaging sensor (image credit: The Grainger College of Engineering at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign).

This poem is inspired by recent research, which has investigated how butterflies can help scientists to detect cancer.

Our planet is home to creatures with sensory powers that far surpass human capabilities. Turtles navigate vast oceans by tapping into Earth’s magnetic field, while mantis shrimp view the world through a kaleidoscope of polarized light. Elephants communicate across distances with rumbles that are too low for us to hear. Similarly, butterflies experience a spectrum of colours that extend into the realm of ultraviolet (UV) light, invisible to the human eye. These extraordinary senses are not just marvels of the natural world; they inspire human innovation, leading us to develop technologies that mimic these biological superpowers.

In this study, scientists have harnessed the butterfly’s UV perception to create a camera that can see what our eyes cannot. By mimicking the unique visual system of the Papilio xuthus (or Chinese yellow swallowtail) butterfly, they have engineered a sensor that captures the elusive UV light. Traditional cameras struggle with UV light, losing it before it can be recorded. This bio-inspired design cleverly combines perovskite nanocrystals and stacked photodiodes to not only detect UV light but also transform a portion of it into visible light. This dual-action capability has enabled the camera to identify subtle differences in biological materials (such as amino acids and cancerous versus normal cells) with an impressive 99% accuracy, potentially revolutionising diagnostic methods and beyond.

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