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Saul Griffith, PhD – MacArthur Fellow and Inventor (Part 1 of 2)

By Admin | July 1, 2008

Dr. Saul Griffith was awarded the MacArthur grant (aka “the genius grants”) in 2007 at the age of 33 for being “the prodigy of invention in service of the world community.” He is based at his company Squid Labs in Alameda, California where his protean interests are continuing. He recently took time out of his busy schedule to share his thoughts with DailyInterview.com


Where are you from?

Bardwell Park, Australia

Where did you go to college and what was your academic major?

2004 Ph.D. at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Media Laboratory. “Growing Machines.”

Programmable assembly and self-replicating machines. First autonomous, self-replicating machines implemented in hardware. Constructive proof that a linear string of polyhedra can fold without self-intersecting into arbitrary 3D structure.

2001 M.S. at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Media Laboratory

Master’s degree by research. Micron and Sub-micron scale rapid prototyping. Designed and developed novel 3-dimensional, multiple material, methods and apparatus for processing nanocrystalline suspensions into electronically functional devices.

2000 ME at University of Sydney, Australia

Master’s degree by research. Fibre Composite Materials. Developed and designed machinery for reprocessing post-consumer textiles and post consumer thermoplastics into structural building materials.

1997 B.Met. EUniversity of New South Wales, Australia

Honors, 1st class. Honors Thesis: Bainitic Transformations in Carbon Steels.

Other than yourself, who is the smartest person you know?

I am surrounded by and get to work with some of the smartest people I know. I have a fantastic network of friends involved in technologies from biology to animation, Web 2.0 to physics and the various engineering sciences.

Picking just one would be impossible. I have worked with so many creative and smart people in my career it is hard to feel like genius is anything more than very hard work focused on interesting things.

What scientific problem has been the hardest for you to solve?

I think the problem that I am trying to solve now, understanding and reducing climate change in part through the development of inexpensive, clean renewable energy sources is the hardest problem I’ve faced.

In fact, climate change is probably the hardest problem all of humanity has ever faced.

Did you have any idea you were being considered for a MacArthur Fellowship?

No. The nominations are completely confidential as is the review of the nominations.

I had no idea I was in the running for the award, which made the phone call from the Macarthur foundation all the more sweet. It really is like waking up one morning to be told you had won a lottery, only that the award was for previous hard work.

How did you actually hear you had won?

It was a very Mission Impossible phone call. The voice said, “Are you Saul Griffith.” I said, “Yes.” Then they said, basically, “This will be our only contact. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to spend half a million dollars doing good things.”

What is the downside of being a MacArthur Fellow?

I haven’t found a downside yet other than perhaps a lack of time to do all the work I would like to do.

Winning the MacArthur has opened up even more doors and allowed me to connect with an even larger group of amazing people contributing good ideas to this world.

What project of your many has been the most fun to work on?

Probably HowToons. I’m passionate about sharing the excitement and the adventure of science and engineering with children, and Howtoons does that through beautifully illustrated comic books.

The first of these books went on sale recently in the United States!

What was the germination of HowToons? What is the aim of that project?

The book idea really came from reading such turn of the century classics as “The Boy Mechanic” and “Handycrafts for Handyboys” and seeing an opportunity for a more updated relevant analog.

Back at MIT one of my co-authors, Joost Bonson, and I would throw project parties as an effort to experiment with kids and adults with stories and projects that would be fun.

They were great events with our friends and professors and their kids. We’d mostly brainstorm and play in a room at the MIT museum that had one of every tool and two of some.

The world is only getting increasingly technical and I think it’s important for kids to feel empowered and part of that.

That will happen through an intuition for the physics and chemistry and science in the objects of their everyday lives. It would be great to also have them learn that the world doesn’t have to be what it appears, it is what we make of it, individually and collectively.

If you don’t like the way things are change them, experiment with them, invent new things and new ideas.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Copyright 2008 DailyInterview.com

Topics: Inventors, MacArthur Fellows (The "Genius Grants"), Scientists | No Comments »

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