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Cycles Of Invention

MY FAVORITE STORY ABOUT ALBERT EINSTEIN INVOLVES something that happened while he was riding a bicycle. I think it reveals as much about the nature of creativity as it does about the mind of the great man. It was the summer of 1895, and it happened while the 16-year-old was pedaling down dirt roads in Tuscany during a glorious family vacation. He was in the midst of some very common adolescent anxieties. His teachers said he would never amount to anything, and he dropped out of high school. This led to some very understandable tension with his parents. They reluctantly indulged his desire to take some time off to think about his future.

But the future wasn’t on the young Einstein’s mind. Instead he began thinking about light, and his thoughts led him in a very unorthodox direction. As he sped along on his bicycle, the countryside seemed to rush past him. The faster he rode, the faster the hills and trees seemed to move. An observer standing on the roadside, of course, would think that he himself was the one standing still and Einstein was rushing past. But what if Einstein could pedal as fast as a beam of light? What would he see then, and what would he look like to the observer?

Einstein realized that something about light put it in conflict with classical physics. It led to paradoxes. He was stumbling on a realm of physics that no one had ever explored. When asked how he’d ever conceived of something as counterintuitive as his theory of relativity, he once remarked, “I dreamed that up on a bicycle.”

How is it that so many great breakthroughs were made by children? Mozart was composing serious music at five. Philo Farnsworth conceived of the theory behind television when he was 16. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley wrote the groundbreaking novel Frankenstein by age 17. My personal choice for best performance by a young inventor goes to Isaac Newton, who was 22 when a plague closed the university he was attending. During a two-year vacation he invented calculus and made major discoveries in optics, astronomy, and physics.

 

The idea that very young people sometimes achieve extraordinary feats is always on my mind during the Collegiate Inventors Competition, an annual search for exceptional creativity among college and university students. Every year, the National Inventors Hall of Fame brings the competition’s finalists together for face-to-face meetings with the judges responsible for deciding which inventions deserve the top prizes. With $50,000 given to the Grand Prize Winner, and $160,000 awarded overall, the competition attracts some extremely impressive entrants. When you meet them, it’s impossible not to wonder which ones will deliver the next transformative invention that will remake the technological landscape.

The 2003 competition concluded on October 23 in New York City. As you might expect, graduate students dominated the event, with inventions based on their original research. Often their inventions are so far beyond the cutting edge that it’s difficult to explain what they are. For example, three students from Cornell University invented something they call a “micromechanical dome-shaped oscillator for communications.” What Keith Aubin, Maxim Zalalutdinov, and Richard Reichenbach created is a radically new way to produce an electronic oscillator. Traditional oscillators resist miniaturization, but these three figured out a way to produce exquisitely tiny oscillators right on a computer chip. Their microscopic dome-shaped structure is capable of vibrating millions of times per second, so it’s perfect for plucking specific radio frequencies from the confusing mix of waves that resonate around us.

The three, who won $25,000 for their accomplishment, have already licensed the invention to a company that hopes to make extremely small medical devices. The three students think that an ideal use for their oscillator would be in miniaturized, superefficient cell phones, but Zalalutdinov also likes to imagine more far-flung applications. “Theoretically you could use oscillators as the basis for circuits that produce artificial intelligence,” he says. “I’d like to see that.”

The undergraduate entrants often make it to the finals by taking a fresh look at established technologies. Deborah Loxam-Kohl, who did her work as an undergraduate at Canada’s Alberta College of Art & Design, in Calgary, won $15,000 for a machine that makes woolen felt. Her story began when she became interested in using felt to create art objects. “You know, making felt is hard work,” she says, describing how she learned the laborious process of hammering piles of wool until they turned into large flat mats. To create three-dimensional felt pieces, she was told to sew flat pieces together, the way a garment worker creates clothing. “I thought,” she says, “there has to be a better way than that.”

 

There is now. Although she had no training or experience in engineering, Loxam-Kohl tackled the challenge step by step. In time she breached every barrier to persuading wool fibers to cling to three-dimensional forms. The machine she created produces seamless felt of unusually high quality, and she’s talking to industrial contacts about mass-producing things like boot liners and speaker cones. “I want the next version of my machine to be big enough to produce something as big as a person,” she says.