Saturday, June 21, 2008


by David G. Woolley

One of Ben Franklin's many passions was lightning. It wasn't a curiosity. It was a force to be reckoned with, understood. After his famous thunderstorm kite flight in June of 1752 his research led to ideas we still use today when we talk about electricity. Ideas like battery, conductor, condenser, charge, discharge, uncharged, negative, minus, plus, electric shock, and electrician are all Ben Franklin contributions. Electric shock is my favorite. He also understood the dangers of untamed electric force and he figured out a way to protect buildings, sea faring ships, and people. The lightning rod is today a metaphor for inventiveness.

It wasn't long before others built on Franklin's ideas. Edison perfected the incandescent filament and tube we call the light bulb, Graham the telephone and Neil Armstrong took a giant leap for mankind when he beamed down the first electrically illuminated video from the moon.

My mother invented Tutti Fruity home made ice cream. No kidding. Its a creamy blend of cherries, pineapple and strawberries with a rather inventive mix of vanilla and a few other secret ingredients that will not be revealed until the US patent office gets back with word on the application. The dessert has clinically addicted our family for decades.

I was a dangling participle in seventh grade. My English teacher was a good man. Mr. Herman paced during class. I napped. He was a grammarian. I was a daydreamer. His lectures on sentence structure were architectural wonders. My papers were an accident waiting to happen. If he remembers me at all it was for our last conversation of the school year. He advised me to avoid any profession which required the use, manipulation or selection of words, pronouns, adjectives, or any other use of the English language. My mother used to apologize for my poor spelling. We practiced a lot. It never helped. I was too busy dreaming.

Mr. Herman said, "You'll never amount to much in any profession if you can't write properly."

I said, "No worries Mr. Herman. I got dreams."

We were both right.

Invention—that seemingly boundless well of ideas that afflicts the curios, finds solutions for the problem solver, and creates wonder in the artistic expression of the gifted. How do you become one of the curious? How do you join the ranks of the problem solvers and gifted souls whose inventiveness delights and amazes?

Necessity may be the mother of it, but there was no pressing need for Franklin to study lightning, Edison to test thousands of materials until he found the perfect filament or for mom to find a more perfect ice cream. Vanilla would have been a fine dessert. There is something divine within each of us that engenders the need to create. Its an inheritance from heavenly parents and when we feel heaven near we simply can't deny the impulse that prods us to ask, "What if? What are the possibilities? If we can dream it, can't we achieve it?"

If necessity is the mother of invention, then the brain may just be the father. That gray matter just happens to have the processing power of 100 teraflops. That's about 100 trillion calculations per second. How do I know? Take the 100 billion neurons in your brain, factor in the 1000 interconnections each neuron makes with other neurons and add the 200 calculations per second that take place at each of those interfaces and you've got yourself a 100 teraflop super computer that's mobile, compact and guaranteed for the life of the handy dandy carrying case.

A couple of years ago IBM built the first computer with more processing power than the human brain. They call it ASCI Purple. Its computing power is a whopping 360 teraflops. The only problem? Portability. It took over a year to move it from the design center in New Jersey to its home at the New Mexico Los Alamos Laboratory. ASCI Purple weighs 197 tons. The human brain weighs about 3.3 pounds soaking wet. ASCI Purple takes up a mere 8,900 cubic feet (about the size of two basketball courts). The average size of the brain? About 56 cubic inches.

There is one other problem. Despite being bested by more than 200 teraflops, the brain still manages to out-do the bulky upstart in the most important category. ASCI purple hasn't the capacity for invention. It simply can't piece together seemingly unrelated ideas and create something revolutionary. Like, say, a 360 teraflop computer. ASCI purple is a huge time saver. Its not an inventor.

For some still unknown reason the mind dreams, creates, and invents. Science calls it amazing. I call it divine. Its so powerful a machine that it even manages to fill in the gaps when you can't. You thought you told the kids to be home at 10 pm, but you only thought it. You were certain you connected all the electrical wiring in an ingenious new grid to improve efficiency and incorporate dimmers in all the bedrooms. Instead you got a blackout. You think you're losing your mind. No worries. Your brain is just busy doing what it does best. Invention.

Try writing a story. One that you're passionate about. One that's been stewing in your thoughts for months maybe even years. You know the beginning middle and end like you know your way home on a dark and stormy night. What doesn't make it onto the page your mind fills in with colorful imagery, rational thought and delightful pros. You've got the beginnings of a masterpiece. Until, of course, you read it aloud. What you thought was a symphony choired by angles is little more than a dangly jitty with flat notes. Where did all the faulty logic come from? There's some important descriptions missing and who made these terribly unspecific word choices? What you lacked in experience and training your brain filled in with an inventive solution.

The next time you set out to follow your dreams, make sure you take the time to train your brain to get to Oz and back. Franklin put in hours of study. Edison put in hours of testing. My mom went through gallons of cream. You can do it too. Combine your inventiveness with some blood, sweat and tears and you'll be amazed by the quality of what you achieve.

May your dreams and your Tutti Fruity ice cream be a symphony choired by angels.

Editor's Note: For Kerry Blair and me, the last line of this post should have read: May your dreams and your Soy Milk be a symphony choired by angels.
Join author David G. Woolley at his Top of the Morning Blog or his Promised Land Website. He is also a weekly contributor to Rangers at the Far Post blog.

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