Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Democratizing Science

Printers are for memos, letters and party invitations. Not microscopes. Well, maybe microscopes.

microscope3Stanford bioengineer Manu Prakash has created what amounts to an origami microscope that you can print on special paper and fold into shape for less than $1. Less than $1. You can’t get a decent hamburger for less than $1.

The skill required to assemble a usable microscope is folding along a straight line. I got a smiley face in kindergarten for folding along a straight line.

As amazing as it to print a functioning microscope, Prakash’s vision is even more expansionary. He wants to spend $50,o00 to send printed microscopes all over the world, including to countries still trying to arc light bulbs, to see what happens. He wants to make science democratic.

In America, we celebrate garage inventors. Most countries of the world never heard of garages. Prakash wants to empower them with an instrument that allows them to see below the surface, maybe to catch a clear glimpse of the parasites that have bedeviled and killed their villagers for generations.

With power like that, committed people, fueled by decimation of their people, may find the way to cures no one else bothers to look for.

The use of lenses to expand the sight of mankind dates back to the 17th century. We have gone from the widened view afforded by physical lenses to light microscopy to electron microscopy. We now have the ability to see the atomic structure of the world, giving us the ability to speculate about the origin of life.

But for large plots of earth, the origin of life is less important than surviving tomorrow. Prakash’s contribution to popular instrumentation is aimed at solving everyday problems, not galactic ones. It is a compelling narrative.

His world view is based on an understanding that we squander much of human potential. As we exercise only a fraction of our individual brain power, the world’s population suboptimizes its collective intelligence. We prevent women from reaching their full potential. We undervalue the intelligence of non-Caucasians. We write off entire continents such as Africa.

ManuPrakash_2012G-embedBut human intelligence isn;t the province of races or ethnicities. Some cultures and civilizations prized learning more than others, but that overlooks the kinetic intelligence  of people left in the ruts of progress. They could contribute if given the chance. Prakash’s initiative is intended to give them a chance.

It won’t be recorded a failure if no one with a printed, folded and not mutilated microscope doesn’t win the Nobel Prize. It will be recorded a victory if it produces a doctor from a village where no one before ever went to college. Or a discovery that helps a community solve its chronic water quality and sanitation problems.

Big money chases big cures. And rightfully so. Little money can track down little cures that save lives in places we can’t pronounce and never will have a 5-star hotel. If one of the people saved by this little cure produces a child prodigy in any field, Prakash will have proved his point.

A microscope you can fold can unfold mysteries of life no one could imagine.

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