|Ira Flatow was greeted by a packed house of three hundred students, faculty and fans in the Freed Curd Auditorium on the campus of Murray State University on Monday night. The longtime NPR host of Science Friday was on hand to speak in an event sponsored by the Gary Boggess Distinguished Lecture program. Boggess, a retired Murray State professor and his wife were also in the audience to enjoy the presentation.
Flatow began his career in radio in Buffalo New York while still a college student. When his station became a National Public Radio affiliate, he found a career that uses his engineering degree and his enthusiasm for all things scientific. His body of work includes the popular PBS series “Newton’s Apple”.
Creativity in science was the topic of the evening.
“Inspiration” said Flatow “can come from many different places. Timing is everything.” A series of examples of timing included the invention of the fuel cell in 1839. It didn’t go anywhere for over a hundred years because there was no market. When the space race began, fuel cells became interesting because they produce boost for rockets and their byproduct is water.
There is a mythology to invention. Flatow told the crowd that the belief that all inventors are geniuses is a myth. He showed slides of inventions by movie stars. Actresses Jamie Lee Curtis and Hedde Lamar were patent holders. Michael Jackson patented the steps to his dance step, the moonwalk. Eddie Van Halen patented a guitar style. A teetotaling band leader, Fred Waring, was a co-creator of a kitchen appliance. Waring wanted to make fruit drinks as he traveled with his band, so when an aspiring inventor brought him an early blender and asked for help perfecting it, Waring bought in and helped out. The Waring blender was the result.
Flatow told his audience that inspiration, motivation, vision, spunk, luck and youth are key ingredients to creative invention. He told the crowd that motivation and spunk are necessary to keep going when everyone else says the invention won’t work. Luck is having a prepared mind. Luck is being at the right place at the right time and in being prepared to see possibilities that others walk by.
To illustrate a prepared mind, the inventor of Velcro came up with the fastener idea after a walk in the woods. He looked carefully at the burrs stuck to his trousers and figured out how to make the hooks and whirls become stick tights.
During the question and answer session, Flatow was asked how Science Friday is put together. He said he has an excellent staff and access to embargoed science publications that key in on trends and discoveries. The process of planning a two hour show involves moving guests around and sometimes being able to reserve the second hour for books and book reviews.
“There is an explosion in the amount of stuff out there.” He said.
Asked about anti-intellectualism, he said he said that he has learned he can’t change minds. If someone believes that the Grand Canyon was created by Noah’s Flood, nothing he can say will convince them otherwise. However, “scientists need to step up.”
The internet is a great thing. But he worries about intellectual property rights.
“This (power point) presentation may turn up on the internet tomorrow.”
Shared work may turn out to be unpaid work. What to do with a good idea?
“Talk to someone you trust or to a patent attorney – and get a nondisclosure statement from them.”
Flatow discussed ethics in science. He worries about nanotechnology. There are nannites everywhere, but there are few if any studies on their effects. He doesn’t know that they are harmful, but he recalled that asbestos was also advertised to be safe because it was natural. It was only after widespread use that it was found to be a carcinogen.
Flatow reminded his audience that part of scientific training should be looking at consequences.
As far as teaching ethics - “If you’re an ethical person, you’ll be an ethical scientist.”
Organizers of the event can pat themselves on the back for bringing an articulate spokesman for the scientific method to Murray State. Exposure to stars of science can only encourage students to invent while they’re young. That’s the best time to do it, according to Ira Flatow.