Saatchi & Saatchi presents its Award for World Changing Ideas at posh event.

Award winners Will Crawford (left) and Peter Brewin of Concrete Canvas Credit: Chris Cassidy, Cassidy Photography

Conventional Seed wisdom tells us that “science is culture.” Judging from Saatchi & Saatchi’s Award for World Changing Ideas ceremony, science is very, very high culture. Located in the advertising agency’s trendy, upscale building in Greenwich Village, the festivities looked more like an art opening than a science exhibition.

Attractive waiters carried wine and appetizers around a spacious room decorated in a combination of iMac white, Sony hi-tech and Gateway cow print. With red cuffs and collar peeking out of my black shirt, I ranked above the median in colorfulness of dress. But the cold exterior was warmed by a near giddiness in the air, as everyone in attendance ogled and marveled at each invention, thinking, “That is so rad!”

The evening’s top prize of $100,000 went to two fit British blokes who created Concrete Canvas, a nearly-instant, durable shelter for aid organization workers—as well as the over 35-million refugees worldwide who currently live in very temporary tents. Each 16 square-meter (172 square-foot) structure arrives via truck as a 225 kilogram (500 lb) bag of cement dust and fiber. The sack is filled with water and left to hydrate for 15 minutes. Then it is unfolded and inflated by activating a small chemical pack, which releases gas into the plastic lining. After 12 hours, the concrete cloth fully hardens into a sterile, usable structure with a minimum durability of 10 years. It looks like a cross between a zeppelin and an igloo, but when the Red Cross is needed, form takes a back seat to the impressive function of the Concrete Canvas structure.

My personal favorite was the Frozen Ark from the University of Nottingham. The project aims to preserve the DNA of every endangered species on Earth, and has already partnered with museums and research groups around the world to build its collection. They believe that within the next thirty years, the Ark will include all 16,000 known endangered animals. While the researchers are currently in the information-gathering phase, they do not rule out the possibility that we will eventually have the technology to resurrect extinct species from the frozen genetic material. Next up, Jurassic Park.

Second on my crazy-sexy-cool list was the work of the highest-profile research team nominated for the award: NASA. Chuck Jorgensen, a scientist at the agency’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, told me about his computerization of silent, “subvocal speech.” When electrodes are placed under the chin and on either side of the Adam’s apple, scientists can measure the slight muscle twitches that occur during speech, and, with the help of some software, actually infer what a person is saying. This way, firemen caught in a smoke-filled, noisy building can call out to each other for help, astronauts in low pressure can communicate commands, and perhaps, someday, people with larynx problems will be able to speak without personally creating a sound.

A spittingly-excited German, University of Leipzig professor Josef Käs, was on-hand to explain his newfangled, biopsy-free method of diagnosing whether a tumor is cancerous. The Optical Stretcher capitalizes on a simple difference between normal cells and cancer cells: Cancer cells don’t have a rigid cytoskeleton, and, therefore, stretch easily; normal cells don’t. Käs’ device sends an infrared laser beam through individual cells, to stretch and measure them. Käs said the Optical Stretcher can make a diagnosis after detecting 50 tumor cells, so samples can be much smaller than those needed for more traditional testing.

I wound my way through the other finalists’ innovations: a solar cell that capitalizes on the photosynthesizing power of spinach to create energy; a portable Braille typewriter; durable bas-reliefs that allow blind people to “see” two-dimensional images by feeling raised sections of a plastic sheet; biodegradable plastic containers made primarily from cornstarch; a mouse pad-sized platform that easily charges all portable devices via induction; and a lens-free ophthalmoscope that can be used by non-specialists to diagnose abnormalities in the eye. The last of these won the Edward de Bono Medal for Thinking, a non-cash prize bestowed to an idea that’s “simple, practical, effective and in use.”

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales Credit: Chris Cassidy, Cassidy Photography

Just when I thought my mind had been sufficiently blown for one evening, I saw Him: the man, the myth, the God of goodhearted geeks everywhere, Jimmy Wales. Wales’ Wikipedia was also nominated for the award, and its inclusion as a finalist allowed me to stargaze at the founder of the densest resource on the Internet. I name-dropped the Nature study that concluded Wikipedia is nearly as accurate as Brittanica, and Wales recounted an amusing anecdote about the study: After the paper came out, Wikipedia fact-checked and corrected all of the errors the study had found. When they looked up the source of one of the mistakes, they found that the error had come directly from a book written by the man who caught it. He’d missed the error in his own book and only managed to catch it when confronted with the Wikipedia article that cited him! Wales also confirmed that he hasn’t made a cent off of the site, which made me a little sad that he didn’t win the $100,000 top prize. I sent him my best wishes that someone would buy the movie rights; imagine it, “24 Hours on Wikipedia.”

I desperately wanted to be every one of the 11 finalists for the Saatchi & Saatchi Award. My shins are bruised from the number of times I kicked myself at last Thursday’s award presentation, saying, “Why didn’t I think of that?” But that was the beauty of each of the designs featured on this night: They were so deceptively simple, so elegantly practical, that it’s hard to imagine the extraordinary ingenuity needed to form these world-changing ideas.

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Originally published February 2, 2006

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