Op-Ed: Dr. Emmett Brown Lives on

Have you wondered what happened to the mad-scientist inventor of old?

Geoffrey Orsak

 Geoffrey C. Orsak

I'm talking about the iconic American who against all odds (and reason) creates the seemingly impossible. In a national corporate culture evermore in love with predictable performance and risk mitigation, it's easy to believe the wild-haired inventor is on the road to extinction. (For those of you who don't know, Dr. Emmett Brown is a fictional character and one of the lead characters in the "Back to the Future" trilogy, in which he invents a time machine — from a DeLorean sports car.)

When we come across one of these unique characters, we know it instantly. Single-minded in their pursuits, these optimists are often frustrated by the tyranny of bureaucracy and fueled by inner passions that they wear proudly on their sleeves.

I want to share a few stories of inventors who are alive and well — people who embrace the outlandish and the brilliant every day.

Nathan Myhrvold made his name and his money as CTO of Microsoft in the '90s. He cashed in on his fortune and re-targeted his brain. Most recently he proposed a concept to filter the intensity of the sun (and reduce global warming) by injecting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere through tubes floated high in the sky by large balloons. Crazy? Yeah, but he and others think it could work.

Wait, it gets crazier. Nathan's friend, Bill Gates, has been battling malaria in Africa with bed nets to prevent mosquitoes from spreading disease during their active evening feeding period. Maybe Nathan just wanted to tweak his buddy, so he invented a device to "shoot mosquitoes out of the sky with laser beams." His invention was creatively assembled with parts from a Blu-ray (laser beam), laser printer (pointing the laser) and digital camera (imaging and signal processing). The dang thing works at both killing the pests and raising huge laughs.

You get these crazy, wild-eyed ideas from great inventors, but you also get head-slapping brilliant stuff, too. Nathan has a device to keep immunization serum at the proper temperature for up to six months with no energy source. This is a game-changer in the effort to disseminate vaccines in regions of the world without access to reliable power or transportation.

Mark Roth is a MacArthur genius who has been featured in "Ripley's Believe It or Not!" He is currently hard at work trying to develop mechanisms to induce a state of suspended animation in humans. This isn't the Ted Williams freezer solution; Mark's approach is similar to the natural processes found in hibernation.

Why, you must be wondering? If Mark can make this work, then first responders can dramatically slow the metabolic processes of severely injured humans until they can be transported to a hospital for proper treatment. While others have been developing the technologies needed to bring the hospital to the battlefield or disaster site, Mark has taken his own unique and somewhat radical path toward extending the "golden hour" to days, greatly increasing the likelihood of survival from severe injuries. All of us should hope he is successful.

Other better-known iconoclasts and inventors also are hard at work: Dean Kamen with his Slingshot water purification system and Stephen Wolfram with a new project that aims to turn the Web into a giant answer machine (check out wolframalpha.com).

Our nation and world needs more of these individuals. Yes, they can be difficult — but they challenge our traditional thinking and inspire us to try the unimaginable. Without them, we might just turn out to be a nation that is simply and sadly in the business of business.

Geoffrey C. Orsak is dean of the Southern Methodist University Lyle School of Engineering. He can be reached at dean@lyle.smu.edu .