Teen invents body heat-powered flashlight: What's your teen done?

Reading about the teenager's body-heat powered flashlight may give parents feelings of hope or angst. Is my teen's academic success speeding forward? Is it OK if they're stalled?

Screenshot LiveLeak
Teenager Ann Makosinski shows off her body heat-powered flashlight in a video.

A 15-year-old student inventor of a new kind of flashlight is the latest in a long line of young people to catch the public imagination with the sheer ambition of her creation. Ann Makosinski, a high school junior from Canada, harnessed Peltier tiles (which generate electricity when one side is cooled and the other is heated) to make a flashlight that can run for about 20 minutes by using nothing more than human body heat. This puts her in the running for the Google Science Fair's $50,000 top prize, to be announced in September.

Inventions have captivated commentators and the general public since the era of the ancient Greeks (remember that cool ship-burning lens thing?) and Chinese (paper, anybody?), and they're doubly inspiring when young people create them - evidence that within every child there is a Leonardo da Vinci waiting to hatch.

The fine print (as there almost always is with any invention) is that Ann's flashlight doesn't work in temperatures above 50 degrees F. Think back to every time you've lost power and/or needed a flashlight, and then recall how many times it has been under 50 degrees. And then remember the similarly battery-free friction powered flashlight, already useful and brought to market. In short: it's a science-fair triumph, but probably not a cash cow.

That is, of course, at least partially beside the point. The excitement over the flashlight (which could, of course, be refined by a company or academic institution with greater resources) is that it's part of a long, ongoing story of young people creating something new and useful - in recent years alone, we've had under-18 inventors create human hair-derived solar panels,  fast-acting phone chargers, and even cancer tests, among dozens of others.

The Google Science Fair initiative is meant to encourage and tap into this spirit of young creativity, and there are dozens of other contests and forums for young people who plunge into the worlds of science and industrial design - everything from local and state gatherings to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair or the London International Youth Science Forum. The key is trapping the lightning of young imagination in the bottle of demonstrable scientific principles.

What you make of this precocious innovation as a parent, of course, depends on the hopes - and/or baggage - that you bring to the story. Is it fun and encouraging? You've probably got a young kid with a world of potential or a slightly older one who has already shown a precocious flair for science and independently guided projects.

Does it induce nervousness? Perhaps you've got an early teen (or teens) and you're wondering what paths they'll take as they search for academic success, careers, and personal fulfillment.

Is it oddly depressing? Well, it may well be that your son or daughter has already cruised through high school without exhibiting so much as a flash of interest in the scientific and mathematical, and has instead decided to spend a year following a jam band from Vermont to San Francisco.

But if you're like me, and raising a three-month-old, you're just happy to stay on top of the diaper situation - angst can wait.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.