Soft Machines

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William Burroghs' "The Soft Machine.
Cover of William Burroghs' The Soft Machine.


The term "Soft Machines", used by Richard Jones as a fitting description of humans, was the title of William Burroghs' novel The Soft Machine. In the book, he refers to the human body as a soft machine and his main character is able to change bodies or metamorphose himself.

This term is applicable to humans since most of the biological processes and materials we are made of are soft matter. Soft machines is also a fitting term to apply to the emerging area of soft matter and fluid based robotics. Below are just a few examples of soft matter in human beings.


  • Blood and suspended cells: Movement and suspension of cell, like red blood cells, flowing through the human vascular system. Osmosis of material from the blood stream through capillaries and membrane walls are all processes and materials described by soft matter physics.
  • Rheology: The study of how matter, in particular fluids and soft matter, flow. This is extremely important to the function of the human body specifically the flow of bodily fluids (many of which are viscoelastic).
  • Polymers: Soft matter physics are key in describing polymer chains and interactions, of particular importance for humans regarding biopolymers like DNA and proteins.
Cluzel Energy Diagram.
Model proposed for the mechanism controlling the direction-switching behavior of the flagellar motor in the E. coli bacterium, a soft machine.

General soft machines

The term "soft machines" can also be applied more generally to soft matter structures that can perform work. While the human body is a classic example, a more simple soft machine is a bacterial flagellar motor such as that found in the E. coli bacterium. Researchers do not fully understand how such motors operate. Recent studies such as the work of Korobkova et al. have sought to develop and experimentally test models for the underlying mechanism of this simple soft machines.


See also: Viscoelastic, Block_Copolymers

Keyword in References

Soft Robotics for Chemists