The West is the new frontier, for ideas

  • Roger Angel checks the angle of the sun before demonstrating how his solar-mirror gun can burn through steel. He intends to develop the first sunlight-concentrating photovoltaic solar generator, which would produce energy from light concentrated to the equivalent of 1,000 suns.

    David Sanders
  • Nathan Myhrvold is a "mischievous" physicist

  • The 337 Project in Salt Lake City attracted more than 10,000 people for an unexpected -- and fleeting -- art experience

  • EDAR in action, because, according to inventor Peter Samuelson, Everyone Deserves A Roof.

  • George Kerscher, with Mikey, wants to make all printed material -- and the Internet -- accessible to blind people.

  • The DAISY Milestone 312, one of the products George Kerscher helped develop, lets blind people use the Internet.


Editor's note: This is the first part of a three-part package online; the second part is here and the third part is here. The entire package was published in the March 16, 2009 print edition of High Country News.


Westerners faced brutal challenges 15,000 years ago. They had to scratch out a living in the resource-scarce Ice Age, competing against the likes of saber-toothed tigers, cave bears, dire wolves, mastodons, woolly mammoths and giant beavers. In order to survive, they had to make a technological breakthrough.

They painstakingly collected stones such as flint and chert, fractured them and flecked chips off the pieces to form thin, narrow triangles. These stone triangles had long-lasting sharp edges and tight grooves at the bottom where they could be securely lashed to the ends of sticks. In other words, our ancestors created kickass spears, which enabled them to effectively kill larger animals for food, clothing and other needs.

Today, we call this technique "bifacial percussion flaking," and the resulting spear points are known as Clovis points, after the New Mexico town where they were discovered in 1929. Clovis points have since been found in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington, as well as in South America -- proof of the technology's widespread success.

Clovis points were only the beginning. The West's Folsom people developed even better spears about 12,000 years ago. And the Chaco Canyon people, in what we now call New Mexico, designed a spectacular city about 1,100 years ago -- more than 50 million stones precisely stacked to make thousands of condo-style rooms, in 15 complexes rising up to four stories tall.

Maybe it's the West's inspiring scenery, or the sense that some kind of predator is always nearby, or something magical in the region's waters. At their best, Westerners have a genius for coming up with inventions and new ideas.

And the innovations that originate out here are often, literally, earthshaking: the modern environmental movement (the first national parks and the original environmental group, the Sierra Club), modern tourism (from Disneyland and Las Vegas to outdoor playgrounds like Aspen and Moab), nuclear bombs, Hollywood movies, pretty much the entire computer sector (Apple, Microsoft, Google, YouTube, Craigslist, Facebook, everyone else in Silicon Valley), and the renewable energy gurus (Amory Lovins and his Rocky Mountain Institute, plus the National Renewable Energy Labs, both in Colorado). We're even responsible for the frozen french fry as a basis for global fast food (Idaho's J.R. Simplot). And we helped pioneer modern daredevilry as mega-entertainment (Montana native Evel Knievel, for example, attempting to jump the Snake River Canyon on a jet-powered motorcycle in 1974, and Larry Walters, the Californian who in 1982 became the first man to fly by attaching helium balloons to a lawn chair).

Our region has tremendous cultural tolerance for experimenters. Our people are ready and willing to try new ideas that are sometimes a little crazy, and we are energetic about shooting off in new directions -- not hampered by musty, cobwebbed, traditional thinking, the way New England and the Midwest and the South can sometimes seem.

So let's honor this Western trait -- and make good use of it. The timing couldn't be better. The world is gripped by huge economic, energy and environmental crises, including climate change, and threatened by widening class differences and gaps in access to technology and education. We need innovators now more than ever. Here's a small sampling of the many Westerners who are shaking up things right now.

--Ray Ring, HCN senior editor

Sci-fi solar

The curved 10-foot mirror focuses sunlight onto a steel plate about five feet away, and the steel glows bright and white -- shedding sparks as if targeted by a cutting torch.

Within seconds, the amplified sunlight burns a hole clean through the quarter-inch steel, near the engraved name of the Arizona Democratic Congresswoman whose million-dollar earmark helped make this demonstration possible.

University of Arizona astronomer Roger Angel is relieved, but not surprised; he'd already tested his solar-mirror gun several times. He spent the hour before Rep. Gabrielle Giffords arrived Feb. 18 making sure that the mirror -- its legs braced in an emptied swimming pool on the Tucson campus -- was properly aligned to capture the sunlight.

Angel, dressed in baggy faded jeans, a plaid shirt and a well-worn hat, admits that the demonstration was something of a trick. His research is aimed at focusing light, not heat. What he has proven, he says, is that a mirror with a very precise focus can be made from cheap material.

To make this one, Angel and other astronomers, optical scientists and engineers associated with the university's Steward Observatory Mirror Lab took some "cheap window glass," heated it, shaped it, coated it and attached it to a salvaged communications dish.

This is not the first time Angel has done something revolutionary. In the mid-1980s, he developed a process for making the telescope mirrors that are used in observatory domes across the globe. (A single telescope mirror costs upwards of $10 million.)

Angel turned his attention to the climate change crisis -- and its link to fossil-fuel emissions -- about four years ago, when his wife told him: "You should do something about it." He hopes to make solar energy competitive with fossil fuels by perfecting mirrors that can focus the equivalent of 1,000 suns onto a specialized photovoltaic device, which other solar experts are currently developing. The result would be "a solar engine," he says. "The price has to be 10,000 times less than the telescope mirrors."

The parabolic concentration of sunlight is not a new concept: Archimedes supposedly used it to create a "death ray" that set fire to Roman ships in 212 B.C. These days, it's used for various purposes, such as heating liquid to convey heat in industrial-scale generating stations. But if Angel and the others succeed in their plans, they will create a major breakthrough of the sort found in science fiction stories.

If all else fails, Angel has a last-ditch plan to ward off climate change. Using NASA funding, he would create a 600,000-mile-long permanent cloud, consisting of trillions of one-meter-diameter plastic spacecraft. These could deflect 1.8 percent of the total light the sun casts on the Earth's surface -- enough to get global temperatures down to glacier-saving levels.

But Angel is hoping it doesn't come to that.

-- by Tom Beal, freelancer

A new method for brainstorming

Nathan Myhrvold calls it an "invention session." Roughly twice a month, he pays experts in a variety of fields to meet for several days at the headquarters of Intellectual Ventures, his $5 billion company in Bellevue, Wash. He seeks unusual people from around the world -- bioengineers, nanotechnologists, chemists, software developers, surgeons, even a few artists. Some are regulars, such as the atmospheric scientist who's also a published poet; others have only been invited once or twice.

Myhrvold, who has a Princeton Ph.D. in physics and studied cosmology under Cambridge's Stephen Hawking, wants people "who have really deep knowledge and an open mind." An average session features five to 10 people in a big conference room furnished with a massive secondhand table and comfortable purple and green chairs. The small group size and informal atmosphere encourage friendly interaction.

Participants freewheel, talking about difficult problems and trying to find new perspectives. "There are a lot of problems that haven't been solved because the right kinds of knowledge were not brought together," says Myhrvold. "If you can get a critical mass (of motivated experts) together with the right spirit, it's fun and you can create something pretty amazing, often in ways that the people involved don't anticipate. We've found it to be an incredibly productive way to generate solutions."

Newsweek described Myhrvold's invention sessions as a "factory of the future" and Washington CEO magazine said he's "an overgrown leprechaun ... mischievous, with a crock of gold." Since he began the sessions in 2003, they've led to hundreds of inventions -- including advancements in surgical equipment, computers, optics and robotics -- that have earned his company about $80 million. He has staffers working on developing more ideas, including a 60-person team taking "a radical new approach" to nuclear power.

Not all the press coverage is positive, though. Because Intellectual Ventures earns most of its revenue by buying patents held by inventors outside the company and licensing them to other companies, it's often denounced as a "patent troll" that jacks up the costs of innovations.

There's no doubt that Myhrvold has the personality to jumpstart innovations. Myrhrvold, 49, became wealthy during the 1990s leading Microsoft's research efforts. He's a high-energy, widely roaming eccentric whose interests include French cooking and dinosaurs. (He funds dinosaur digs and has a full-size Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton in his living room.) He says the West has the best habitat for innovators: "You need ... some societal support for doing crazy new things. And historically the Western U.S. has supported that, much more than (other regions characterized by) stodgy careerism. We're trying to explore the intellectual frontiers."

--by Ray Ring, HCN senior editor

Breaking down walls, with art

In May 2007, subdued murmurs accompanied the crash of collapsing bricks and shattering glass as Adam Price, along with dozens of spectators and over 100 artists, watched the demolition of his first experiment in public art. Inspired by a project in New York, Price and his wife, Dessi, had invited 143 artists -- ranging from teenaged graffiti artists to classical painters in their 70s -- to transform an abandoned, 42-room building in one of Salt Lake City's oldest neighborhoods. The 337 Project, named for the building's address, was open to the public for two weekends. Then the whole thing was dramatically destroyed to make way for green-built apartments that will include space for public art.

Before the demolition, more than 10,000 visitors came to see the sculptures, installations, paintings and murals that covered the building, inside and out. For many Salt Lake City residents, the quality of the artwork was a revelation. "Utah can't think of itself as an individual country anymore," said one awed viewer. "Its walls are falling down."

Price describes the 337 Project as a magical, breathtaking experience. It sounds strange coming from a Harvard-trained commercial litigation and criminal defense lawyer. But then, there aren't many lawyers like Adam Price. Whether he's wearing a suit or a T-shirt, he looks youthful and tousled, with a gentle smile. His wife, with sleek brown hair and a Bulgarian accent, has a similar, self-effacing charm.

"My only claim to any art competency or fluency is the fact that my mother dragged me to every new show in every gallery in town," Price says of his childhood in Washington, D.C. "I think I was bored and resented it at the time, but I guess it sunk in, in ways I wasn't fully aware of." When he moved to Salt Lake City in 2000, he missed the art in D.C., Boston and New York. But rather than fret about the vacuum, Price decided to create something new.

The 337 Project was so energizing and cathartic that the Prices decided to continue creating unexpected avenues for art in Salt Lake City. They are drawn to projects that take art out of museums and catch ordinary people off-guard. Their most recent venture is the Art Truck -- a traveling installation by well-known artists that visits schools, libraries, and even parks in front of people's driveways, unannounced. "There is no plan," says Price; he makes up the route as he goes along. Up next, Price envisions a mini-golf course, with each hole created by a different artist. "People might not even know that it is art at first," he says. "They might just come to play."

--by Emily Underwood, freelancer

A home for the homeless ... on the street

Two years ago, during his daily bike ride from his home to the beach and back, Hollywood movie producer Peter Samuelson began noticing more homeless people than usual. He started counting them, keeping track of the numbers, and then took his interest further.

"One thing that's worked for me in my life, if I'm a little scared of something, I make myself do it," said Samuelson. "I decided I was a little scared of these guys. So I interviewed (62) of them and asked ... where they go at night."

He was surprised to learn that few were sleeping in shelters. So he tapped his philanthropic skills -- he's launched three successful charities -- and raised money to create a contraption he calls the EDAR (Everyone Deserves A Roof). Designed by Eric Lindeman and Jason Zasa, the EDAR is shaped like a shopping cart. It's made of wire and piping, wrapped with military-grade canvas and adorned with detachable pouches. For day use, it can be filled with baggage and pushed around. But a person can lock the  wheels and collapse an EDAR in about a minute, transforming it into a raised tent to sleep in.

The EDAR sprang out of a sad pragmatism. Adding a single bed to a typical shelter and providing the necessary staff support costs as much as $100,000, says Samuelson. And the sheer size of the problem -- more than 70,000 people sleep on the streets of L.A. County alone on any given night -- makes the cost prohibitive. An EDAR costs only $500 to build, and Samuelson wants to pay that expense through fund raising rather than charging the units' recipients.

The first batch of 60, released in L.A. last summer, proved so popular that EDAR Inc. is trying to raise money for another 1,000. And shelter managers across the U.S. and Canada, as well as in Romania, the Czech Republic, Brazil and Indonesia, are interested. They see it as a way to expand their capacity and to build relationships with homeless people who would otherwise steer clear of their facilities. By opening their grounds to EDAR campers at night and offering to store EDARs during the day, shelters can connect with people while still allowing them their independence.

Christopher Raynor, a 40-year-old homeless man who camped near Pacific Palisades last December, told the Los Angeles Times that he finds his EDAR "very comfortable. ... This is one of the greatest damn gifts you could ever give to anybody."

--by Terray Sylvester, freelancer

Innovator tidbit: Portland's Miranda Homes company turns junked cars into sustainable housing, recycling the steel to make structural framing and charging only $95 per square foot for a finished house.

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