I read a great article a few years called “Where to Get a Good Idea: Steal It Outside Your Group“. Sociologist Ronald Burt argues that creative ideas aren’t magically created, but rather, they are well-known concepts re-applied in new arenas. Maybe that cool paper punch found in the stationary store will become the next best thing in pizza cutters – all it takes is someone to connect the two. My favorite quote in the article is “People who live in the intersection of social worlds are at higher risk of having good ideas.”
To this end, I enjoy putting myself in that intersection of social worlds. I’ll ask my taxidriver about how he does his job; learn the ins and outs of the starting a small business from my hairdresser friend. Matt Blaze famously applied this when he brought techniques that were well-known among the computer security community to the world of physical locks.
So, I come to one of my favorite little websites: Transmaterial. Every two weeks, it describes an innovative new physical material.
Now, you ask, new materials are useful, but how does that website help the DIY hobbyist?
I love it for two reasons:
1. It exposes me to new ideas outside of my usual sphere.
2. A lot of the new materials seemed to have been formed by the same kind of cross-discipline thinking.
For example, the surface of a Lotus leaf has zillions of tiny bumps to repel water more effectively than a flat surface can. Sure, that’s interesting, but how is it practical? Kenya Hara created a new kind of humidifier by selectively applying a coating that mimics this response to a sheet of paper. The result is a pattern of thousands of tiny drops of water with a greater surface area than found on other humidifiers — leading to more effective evaporation without the need for electricity. Biologists knew about this effect; it took a creative leap to find a use for it in the HVAC world.
So, there’s my first post. I hope to bring you lots of other cool information, but I probably just gave up some of my favorite ideas.
12 thoughts on “Stealing Good Ideas: Transmaterials”
I opened 3 tabs just from this post alone!
This post certainly rang true for me. I’m a researcher in the nanotech field, which is necessarily highly diverse and cross-disciplinary. It brings together chemistry, physics, engineering, biology, and a whole host of other fields. In this murky area between the macro-scale world of Newtonian physics and the nano-scale world where quantum physics begin to apply, it’s necessary to pull, or steal, ideas from many different fields in order to solve problems. The lotus effect is only one such idea, and can be used to make a more efficient humidifier (as above), make glass surfaces self-cleaning, or help separate fluids of different kinds by their surface tensions, among a whole ton of other things.
Today’s world of science is sometimes lamentably fragmented, resulting in scientists specializing in the synthesis of a very particular class of compounds, people who research only emission spectra from inorganic compounds, engineers who only know how to construct vacuum systems, and physicists who spend all their time researching the different combination of up, strange, and top quarks. Not to say these pursuits aren’t important, but often, it results in a short-sighted view of natural phenomena. All the great minds of the past – Newton, Einstein, Kepler, Pasteur – had diverse training in many fields, and often took ideas from one field and applied them to another, resulting in some of the greatest discoveries of science.
I guess what I’m getting at here is that, from this scientist’s point of view, “stealing” is the wrong word. After all, imitation is the highest form of flattery, and anyone whose ideas are re-appropriated should be glad that their discovery is being used to further our knowledge and understanding of the world around us. Kudos to those who expand their own knowledge by finding ideas which may be old news to someone else, but brand new to you. It makes for some of the best inventions.
Great post John, I really like the Transmaterial site.
If Mr. Hara’s material increases the evaporation rate of water without requiring more net energy – humidification is the least of its applications. Since multi-chamber evaporative coolers continue to show up in the news as a method for extending food shelf-life in developing countries, any method that can reduce the size(large) or weight(heavy) of these devices will also be big news, especially if the lotus-type material can be fabricated outside of an industrialized nation.
And hey, if someone puts this material into a two-pot fridge, the news will actually be correct about it being a new invention for once!
For most inventors (especially independant ones), this holds true. Out of the 3 ideas for new products in my head, all of them are taking 2 existing ideas and splicing them together. That’s not to say people are creating new things from scratch that have never existed before.
I forget who said it, but they said 95% of everything we have today was invented in the 70’s.
And as grampa simpson said, the fax machine is nothin but a phone with a waffle machine attached to it.
As to the fabrication of these nano-scale patterned materials in non-industrialized nations, check out a couple of techniques called soft lithography and micro transfer molding…
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