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The Creativity of Nature:

How One Creative Scientist Harnessed It

By   Shlomo Maital

Prof. Frances Arnold, Caltech

   Frances Arnold is a professor of chemical engineering at California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, CA. She won the 2018 Nobel Prize for chemistry, along with two others. She is only the fifth woman in history to win the Chemistry Nobel.

   Prof. Arnold has had numerous personal tragedies. She has overcome all the grief – and not a small amount of gender discrimination. UK border police interrogated her for over two hours, when she told them she was “coming to meet the Queen” (she was – but a lot of nutty people say that, apparently).

     Prof. Arnold won the Nobel for finding a creative way to leverage the powerful creative force of evolution. Instead of designing new chemicals from scratch, to fight crop-eating pests, remove laundry stains or clean up oil spills, Arnold figured out how to get Nature to do it.

     “You start with a protein that already has some features you’re interested in”, she said, “ and use standard lab techniques to randomly mutate the gene that encodes the protein. Then you look for slight improvement in the resulting protein, in the direction you seek. You mutate the improved version again and again and screen the output. You do this with a bacterial workhorse, like E. coli….. you encourage the microbes to rise to the challenge, adapt, survive.”

       In Dr. Arnold’s lab, organisms have been ‘mutated’ to stitch together carbon and silicon, or carbon and boron. “We’re discovering that nature can do chemistry, in the lab, we never dreamed was possible”, Dr. Arnold said.    Arnold has invented the new field of evolutionary chemistry – using Nature’s incredibly creative system known as evolution and ‘survival of the fittest’, to create random mutations, select the ones that work, perfect them – and change the world. Nature is creative, in much the same way that humans are – try things, fail, try again, find something that does work and run with it. That is how we humans were created – and according to Darwin, all the millions of species on earth.    

   Arnold has launched a number of startups, including one that synthesizes insect pheromones and fends off agricultural pests by simply driving them crazy and confusing them.

   Much of Dr. Arnold’s pioneering research was done while she fought breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. She underwent surgery, radiation and chemo, all while raising three young boys and working day and night in her lab.   And in 2010 her husband Andrew Lange killed himself; her middle son William, 20, died in an accident in 2016.  

     “Why would I give up?” said Arnold. “First you learn you have no control. Then you straighten up, fetch your invitation and go to meet the Queen.”    

       [This is based on an excellent New York Times article, by Natalie Angier, who writes for the Science Times].









How “You’re Out of Your Mind!” Won a Nobel Prize  

By Shlomo Maital


      Cultivate wild ideas!   This is a proven path for changing the world, and, perhaps, for winning a Nobel Prize in Physics.

       Profs. Weiss, Barish and Thorne have won the 2017 Nobel for Physics. They won it for empirically demonstrating the existence of “gravity waves”, predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago. According to The New York Times:

    These waves would stretch and compress space in orthogonal directions as they went by, the same way that sound waves compress air. They had never been directly seen when Dr. Weiss and, independently, Ron Drever, then at the University of Glasgow, following work by others, suggested detecting the waves by using lasers to monitor the distance between a pair of mirrors.

In 1975, Dr. Weiss and Dr. Thorne, then a well-known gravitational theorist, stayed up all night in a hotel room brainstorming gravitational wave experiments during a meeting in Washington. Dr. Thorne went home and hired Dr. Drever to help develop and build a laser-based gravitational-wave detector at Caltech. Meanwhile, Dr. Weiss was doing the same thing at M.I.T.   The technological odds were against both of them. The researchers calculated that a typical gravitational wave from out in space would change the distance between the mirrors by an almost imperceptible amount: one part in a billion trillion, less than the diameter of a proton. Dr. Weiss recalled that when he explained the experiment to his potential funders at the National Science Foundation, “everybody thought we were out of our minds.”

   The breakthrough research combined a wild idea (empirically measuring gravity waves) with a feet-on-the-ground project to measure them.  The most advanced version of LIGO Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory had just started up in September 2015 when the vibrations from a pair of colliding black holes slammed the detectors in Louisiana and Washington with a rising tone, or “chirp,” for a fifth of a second.

   Barish knew how to manage Big Science projects, like LIGO; Weiss and Thorne had the wild idea of measuring tiny tiny waves, an “out of your mind” idea.  And the National Science Foundation provided the needed resources. Presto – Nobel.

   Weiss and Thorne are MIT professors; Barish is from Caltech.


Beyond Moore’s Law: Vacuum Tubes?

By Shlomo Maital

  vacuum tube

Vacuum tube

   Sometimes, you can innovate by going back to the future. Take, for instance, the transistor. They are getting ever smaller, and more and more of them are packed into a microprocessor.   Semiconductor companies like Intel now work in 10 to 20 nanometer dimensions (a DNA strand is about 2.5 nanometers).   Below 10 nanometers, who knows how silicon will behave?  At those dimensions, it starts to emit light and becomes very flexible.

   Almost half a century ago, Intel founder Gordon Moore stated his famous law, that the number of transistors that could be etched into silicon wafers would double every 18 months or so. This has held true, remarkably. But it seems we are approaching the limit of Moore’s Law. The smaller transistors get, the more they leak electrons. This causes wasted power (up to half the power consumed by microprocessors is lost when electrons leak), and generates a lot of heat, which in turn requires massive cooling.

     Dr. Axel Scherer, a Caltech scientist, is working on a solution. He and two students have gone back to the vacuum tube. Vacuum tubes (“valves” in Britain) are devices that control electric currents between electrodes in an evacuated container;   electrons are emitted from a hot filament or a cathode heated by the filament. They are big, clunky and creating the vacuum is costly. But Scherer creates tiny tubes of metal, able to turn flows of electrons on and off between four very tiny probes. What is neat about this is that you do not need to use silicon, and the very ‘leakage’ of electrons that bedevils tiny transistors actually is the basis of the nano-vacuum tube substitute for transistors.    It reminds me of Dov Frohman’s invention of flash memory.  He was asked to solve a problem of stray electrons on the surface of silicon microprocessors, solved it, but realized you could make use of those electrons, as a way to store information.  Flash memory is now ubiquitous. 

   Could these tiny vacuum tubes help us keep Moore’s Law in business? Stay tuned. Meanwhile, think about other old technologies that can be adapted to create massive value in new ways.

   Source:   “Shrinking computer chips, thanks to grandma’s radio tubes”. NYT, John Markoff, Monday June 6, 2016

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital