Saturday, July 27, 2013

Are the days of the lone inventor behind us forever?

As I stood in Thomas Edison’s reconstructed laboratory in Dearborn, Michigan last week, I was struck by how Mr. Edison’s invention process was the beginning of the end – the end of the lone inventor or scientist working solo in his or her laboratory, unlocking the secrets of the universe or coming up with the next big invention that would change the world.  Thomas Edison took the work of the lone, creative inventor and, like any good child of the Industrial Revolution, industrialized it.  Sure, he was brilliant and no doubt the intellectual author of the many inventions credited to him. (The electric light and phonograph are but two examples.)  But, if he hadn’t had the army of technicians and fellow inventors working alongside him, I seriously doubt that he would have been so productive.

Is this a bad thing?  No, necessarily.  In my day job, I work for NASA.  And one thing I’ve learned in my 23 year career is that space technology development is inherently a team effort.  To design a spacecraft or technology to work in space takes the expertise of many discipline-specific scientists (physicists of all kinds, chemists and mathematicians) as well as mechanical, electrical, structural and thermal engineers.  Without their highly-specialized training and expertise, new space technology innovation would be impossible.
This is true in the ‘pure’ sciences as well.  Gone are the days of Madame Curie discovering radium in a laboratory with only her husband as a research partner.  Today the Higgs Boson was found by a team of hundreds of physicists using a multi-billion dollar particle accelerator that only European governments could build.  (We almost built our own, but that’s another sad story.)

And yet… At the core of each of these modern discoveries and inventions is often a single individual.  This person is the one who makes it all happen.  The Werner Von Braun who convinces a president to fund Project Apollo; The Robert Oppenheimer who is the driving force keeping the Manhattan Project on track to developing the atomic bomb; The Thomas Edison who works with his team until all hours of the night until they finally found a material that they could use to make a working light bulb.  The power of the individual is alive and well – it is just more complicated for him or her to create and invent because this person now has to spend half his time selling and managing.   Today’s inventors and scientists need to be communicators, managers, creators and technicians.  Individuals still matter, but they must be multidisciplined.  Let’s hope our educational system is up to the task of equipping them with the tools they will need to be successful.

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