To measure the value of an event in terms of the human capital of those present, Seniorhelpline editor in chief James Meigs introduced a new metric at our fifth annual Breakthrough Awards in the Hearst Tower in New York City yesterday. "If a meteorite were to hit this building today," he said, "I'd hate to think of the damage to innovation in our society."
On the space object annihilation disaster index, the Breakthrough Awards ranks high, as one of the few occasions where scores of such diverse scientists, engineers and technologists can gather, exchange ideas and receive a healthy dose of much-deserved recognition. The test pilot for Sikorsky's radical new X2 helicopter rubbed shoulders with astronomers seeking life in other solar systems via the Kepler space telescope, while the inventors of the first practical flying car (the Maverick stayed parked and earthbound outside the building) met next-generation robot builders and a Harvard team that has coaxed electricity from the microorganisms growing in soil. This year, the leadership award was given to Dean Kamen, founder of DEKA Research and Development Corporation and the founder of, and driving force behind, the FIRST robotics competition for teenagers. Kamen is a prolific inventor, a tireless advocate of hands-on science and technology education for young students, and one of the most famous living celebrities in the world of technology and engineering.
For the event, attended by about 250 technologists, scientists and journalists, Kamen brought with him a panoply of inventions: The amazing Luke robotic prosthetic arm built for veterans with DARPA funding, two self-balancing iBot wheelchairs (which survived a noisy collision with each other) and a high-tech Coca-Cola Freestyle soft drink dispenser introduced this year. Also on display--and dispensing refreshment--was his Slingshot water purification machine, which can produce drinking water from even the most contaminated sources. It was all displayed in the soaring atrium of the office tower, which lies just south of Columbus Circle. And PM editors invited two FIRST high-school robotics teams. I spoke with the 12th graders from Saunders Trades and Technical High School in Yonkers, NY, who brought their robot, named Steve, with them. Steve had suffered an unfortunate static shock (courtesy of our carpeting--sorry Steve) that had laid its drive system low. But a competing team loaned a new base for Steve that helped get the bot up and running again "That's one of the great things about FIRST," said Saunders team member Anthony Resino. "When a robot goes down, even opposing teams help out." Later in the evening, Resino got to spend some time playing next-gen video games using Microsoft's Natal, a camera-based computer vision system that can control the Xbox 360 based on player's body movements. Award winner Alex Kipman, the director of incubation for Xbox became an instant mentor, explained how the system might work with various games--and how Resnio might get into video game design himself.
Cooperation was in evidence with many of the Breakthrough winners. When NASA engineer William Borucki, the lead scientist for the space agency's Kepler telescope, and his wife chatted with Barry Cinnamon, CEO of Akeena solar, the group quickly did the math to figure out how many of the company's groundbreaking AC solar panels would be necessary to power the Borucki house. This sort of serendipitous meeting of the minds was echoed all over the event. Harvard researcher Aviva Presser-Aiden--who worked with a team of students on the LebÃ´né project, which produced a workable fuel cell that produces power from the microbes in dirt--made her husband try out the Natal. (He needed some relaxation, after recently .) The achievements of Presser-Aiden and her students will bring the benefits of electricity and lighting to some of the most remote regions of Africa.
The event was packed with award winners and press, and a notable number of honorees from years past, including Shawn Frayne (the developer of an innovative wind power concept) and Stuart Harshbarger, the leader of another team developing a sophisticated prosthetic arm. The crowd was large enough to overflow from the Hearst Tower's Joseph Urban Theater, but those who couldn't get in could watch on TV, or spend more time with the on-site inventions (and open bar) in the gallery outside. And there was plenty to see, from Nikon Coolpix S100pj with a built-in microprojector, to plug-and-play solar panels.
Towards the end of the evening, I encountered PM contributor Logan Ward talking with Hugo Van Vuuren from the Leboné project. I asked Van Vuuren (Ward is biased, we pay him) what he thought of the night. "You guys do for science and technology what Vogue does for fashion," he said. "This event makes science sexy."
Who knew? Gather together a bunch of geniuses for a party and you're sure to hear a few brilliant ideas bandied about, but were we single-handedly making science so stimulating? This reporter has zero comment on that, except to say that the party was a damn good time, and thankfully, there were no meteor showers in the forecast.