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Saul Griffith, PhD – MacArthur Fellow and Inventor (Part 2 of 2)

By Admin | July 2, 2008

This is the second part of a two part interview with scientist, inventor, and MacArthur Fellow Saul Griffith, PhD.


What are your current projects? How are you spending your time?

Many of my ideas and projects existed prior to Squid Labs. Squid Labs has been a great opportunity to work with people like Eric Wilhelm (now running Instructables.com), Colin Bulthaup (now running potenco.com), Corwin Hardham (Makani Power), Ryan McKinley, and Dan Goldwater.

I trained as a materials scientist with a heavy interest in mechanical engineering and design. I think about a lot of things in terms of materials.

I’ve always had a deep interest in doing things efficiently and elegantly either in terms of energy or environmental factors. I’ve always been interested in the way biological systems work, and find a lot of inspiration there.

Indeed, most of my thesis work at MIT was trying to bring concepts of biological assembly to the field of self-assembly. I’ve always been intrigued by minimum energy surfaces and membrane-based structures, as structures that can be defined by simple boundary conditions that produce complex or useful shapes.

I have always found textiles a tremendously interesting field, probably due to my father’s work in that field. He was into knitted and non-woven textile technologies. I think there are a lot of exciting things to do there.

Right now, I spend a lot of my time thinking about and working on renewable energy technologies. I’ve always had an interest in collaboration and how to structure collaborative efforts and share ideas.

That’s where projects like instructables.com and thinkcycle.org came from. I love watching the communities at instructables.com and Make Magazine create beautiful new ideas and things.

When and where do you do your best thinking?

There are always new things to make. I don’t find any need to sit and “invent”; mining the backlog of ideas seems pretty fruitful.

Regularly interacting with the great minds of your generation and hopefully the generations on either side is a tremendous way to fertilize your own ideas and come up with new ones.

How did you get involved or develop an interest in getting low cost eyeglasses to those in need? Can you describe this project and your aims.

A drop of water on a leaf forms a surface known as a “minimum energy surface” – some of the first microscopes were based on this principle – the droplet of water forms a sphere that can be used for magnification.

Many physical systems can produce different types of minimum energy surfaces, in fact covering a bowl with glad wrap and then changing the pressure inside the bowl will turn the surface of the glad wrap into a lens shape.

You can then mold a lens off that surface. The invention is about making that system accurately produce many different lenses.

The device was principally aimed at developing country markets where as many as 1 billion people don’t have access to affordable eyecare. It looks like there are applications in developed countries also.

The cost is lower because it can remove the complexity of the manufacturing system (lots of molds) and also remove the need to store lots of different lenses at the user end.

Each new lens can be made on demand when the customer requires it – for developing prescription glasses for people in poor countries which ”lack the infrastructure required for vision care”

What was your first invention?

One of my earliest memories of inventing things was an obsession with making grappling hooks for climbing trees and buildings.

My childhood adventures included making my own rocket-powered toy cars, kites and enormous puppets. I kept a diary of drawings of my inventions as a kid that included monorails and airplanes shaped like manta rays.

How old were you when you realized that you had a knack for inventing that perhaps was special?

I pretty much always wanted to invent and build cool things. I have notebooks as an 8 year old of drawings of flying machines and levitating trains and other crazy inventions.

Do you come from a family of inventors? What did you Mom and Dad do for a living?

My father is an engineer. My mother is an artist. Both are creative inventors in their respective mediums.

Name one technical or scientific problem that you have not worked on that you really would like to take a crack at.

Synthetic biology – it is a great future mixing programming with biology.

Copyright 2008 DailyInterview.com

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