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.