Amateurs may hold the key to the future of space innovation


\nOver the (very brief) July 4th holiday, I had a chance to catch up some innovation-related reading. This cover story in the current New York Times Magazine, for example, explains how amateurs are contributing to the future of space innovation. Thanks to the creation of a wide range of design contests sponsored by NASA, the U.S. space program has received a raft of new ideas to solve problems related to space travel, ranging from the creation of space gloves to the harder task of creating a space elevator. Enticed by the prospect of a $200,000 prize, for example, an out-of-work innovator in Maine decided to develop a state-of-the-art space glove while working in his garage and applying a little Yankee ingenuity:

"With NASA sponsoring seven design contests for everything from a new\nlunar lander to a new space glove, anybody with a home-brewed invention\ncould enter. [Peter] Homer’s previous jobs included some gigs in the aerospace\nindustry as well as work sewing boat sails. So, Homer told me not long\nago, he ruled out building a flying spacecraft but decided that "the\nglove contest represented something of the scale I could achieve\nworking out of my home by myself." He’d always been a garage tinkerer,\nhe said, and being unemployed, he also wanted to prove to his\n14-year-old son "that you can do anything if you put your mind to it."\nOh, he added offhandedly, "the money is a motivator, too." At stake was\na prize — presented with one of those giant cardboard checks — for\n$200,000.


Last spring, Homer seized his family’s dining room, occupied his garage\nand set out to build a better space glove for NASA. It doesn’t sound\nlike the most glamorous task in the larger effort of conquering the\nfinal frontier, or maybe even that big of a problem. But the space\nglove is fraught with little tribulations that, like a pebble in a\nshoe, can drive a space program half crazy. Because the air inside a\nspacesuit is highly pressurized, each time an astronaut flexes a\nmuscle, he has to overcome the suit’s resistance. It’s actual work. And\nwhen it comes to the highly articulated precision that is the human\nhand, this means that the fine sinews are quickly exhausted and the\nfingers brutalized by the effort.

As ever-more sophisticated tools of production move into the hands of average citizens, it's likely that we will see more of this kind of innovative thinking emerging at the fringes of industries. For more on the rise of amateur innovation, it might be interesting to check out An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths from Glenn Reynolds (aka Instapundit).


[image: New York Times]

Related Articles

How does alcohol affect your brain?

Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.

(Photo by Angie Garrett/Wikimedia Commons)
Mind & Brain
  • Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
  • Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
  • Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

Surprising Science
  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.

Why cauliflower is perfect for the keto diet

The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.

Purple cauliflower. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
  • The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
  • It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
Keep reading Show less