Like an artist who creates works out of found objects, Manu Prakash, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford, finds the beginnings of solutions to complex problems in seemingly random bits of nature and sometimes even from toys. Awarded a 2016 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” Prakash does work that is sometimes whimsical, always original, and fueled by a desire to educate and improve the lives of people in developing countries.
The India-born scientist came across a small, hand-cranked music box one Christmas, and as he played with it realized that the rotating pins could be used to control valves, in much the same way a punch card could program an old-style computer. The music box became an inexpensive chemistry set used for testing things like water or soil quality. Another invention is the “Foldscope,” a paper microscope that people in developing countries are using to research diseases in bees, detect ovarian cancer and teach hygiene. A tiny insect flitting across a lake inspired Prakash to tease out the secret of how it could fly on water, and the unlikely ballet-like movements of droplets of food coloring inspired him to develop a computer powered by the motion of tiny drops of water. “I like solving puzzles. … I’m really passionate about the diversity of life forms on this planet,” Prakash said. He discusses his wide-ranging interests and research in the video below produced by the MacArthur Foundation.