Friday, November 13, 2015

The Slowest, Dumbest Genius You'll Ever Meet

by Drew Martin
I watched a documentary today about Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway (no, he did not die by driving one off a cliff). He is also the founder of FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, which brings out the engineers in students through arena-style robotic competitions) and the SEE Science Center, a hands-on learning museum in Manchester, New Hampshire.

The documentary is called SlingShot, which is the name of a water distillation machine he hopes to distribute and install around the world in order to bring clean water to communities who are in need of potable water. He chose the name SlingShot because of the story of David and Goliath, which fascinated him as a kid. While most people focus on the small, less-powerful David overcoming Goliath, his giant adversary, the take-away of the story for Kamen was that technology (the slingshot) is cool, and empowering. It also complements one of the many adages he expresses in the documentary: that a really big person helps everybody else be big and to not keep them small.

Kamen has devoted his life to technology; specifically to technology that saves lives, including SlingShot as well as a home dialysis machine, which actually led to the development of SlingShot in order to provide medical-grade water for dialysis. Like most of us, I probably looked at the Segway as more of a recreational scooter, but Kamen approached it as a real people-mover in order to solve the problem of car-congested/polluted cities and as a segway between walking and driving.

While technology is king for Kamen, and he has filled his dream house in New Hampshire with beautiful machines such as a 150+-year-old steam engine from an old tugboat, and a real helicopter in a glass-walled garage, which he flies around, he does see shortcomings to its promises, such as the social contradictions of how it is used as well as unattainable dreams including his desire for a time machine. Another adage he says is that truth is transient, especially with technology.

To this point Kamen suggests that we do not have an education problem in America, but rather a cultural problem in that we do not pay much attention to the great minds that contribute to the betterment of society but are amazed that someone can perform slightly better in a sport, and get a basketball in a net. He says that unless you are doing something that inspires you and wake up ready to embrace each day, you are cheating yourself of a happy and meaningful life.

Kamen's intelligent humor shows through in many moments of the documentary, such as when he takes off the housing of a SlingShot model to explain its inner workings and points to the location of its expensium, unobtainium, unreliabilium, and icantmaketwoathem.

While he has had many successes, he also explains the difficulty of implementing innovation and warns his staff at his company DEKA of resting on their laurels, which he expresses as taking a nap on the bear-skin rug before you are sure you shot the bear.

Kamen is concerned by an attitude towards aid work that something of no cost has no value but his drive to solve world problems through technological solutions is unyielding, and with his wit promises that he will be an overnight success in twenty years.

On a hallway wall in his house he has hung drawings of great scientists and thinkers, which his father drew: Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, and Albert Einstein, who he refers to as Big Al. While responding to a comment about his own genius, he is flattered but explains he is a very slow learner with dyslexia. He says..If I am a genius then I am the slowest, dumbest genius that you'll even meet.