Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Surprising Journey

I enjoy reading Carl Zimmer's articles on science. He has a way with words and ideas and gives the reader a wonderful insight into nooks and crannies of contemporary science. This bit from an article in the NY Times shows how a career in science can be full of surprises:
At the studio Mr. Pell helped Dr. Wainwright and his colleagues build models to test their ideas about biomechanics, creating models of spinal cords, muscles, jaws and dozens of other animal parts. “These models can physically surprise you,” said Mr. Pell. “They can show you things that you didn’t think of before you built them.”

One of Mr. Pell’s biggest surprises came when he tried to make a simple model of a swimming fish. He built a rubber tube with a rounded front and then stuck a rod a quarter of the way down its length. When he put the tube in water and turned the rod back and forth between his fingers, it generated a wave with its tail. While making a new version of that tube, Mr. Pell accidentally nicked the tail end. That new shape, he discovered, caused the water to flow in a different pattern around the tube, creating thrust.

Mr. Pell, Dr. Wainwright and their colleagues got a patent for the design and started a company called Nekton to develop products from it. First, they turned it into a commercially successful bathtub toy. But when the Navy discovered Mr. Pell and his colleagues could get fishlike thrust from something without any moving parts, they encouraged him to get into the business of building underwater robots. Mr. Pell and his colleague at Nekton ended up making a highly maneuverable yardlong robot called the Pilot Fish.

“We started out as a toy company; we ended up as a defense contractor,” said Mr. Pell.
We need a world in which people with the quirky skills and interests needed to create have free rein to create. Innovation makes us all wealthier. Sadly our institutions are set up for rote learning and text book skills and not dreams and innovation. We need to "breed" more eccentrics and dreamers.

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