Importance of Re-Discovery

An important component of innovation is the rediscovery and rethinking of old ideas, many of which  are now at the cutting edge of modern technology, biology and cosmology. 

In addition, many ‘new’ inventions are old technologies that have been re-purposed. The microscope was invented by reversing the optics of the telescope, and the printing press was a re-jigged wine press.

Henry Ford’s car assembly lines were modelled on the cow carcass-carrying lines of Chicago meat packers, and Viagra was originally developed as a treatment for angina, but had surprising side effects! 

Modern medicine has re-introduced the use of vampire-like leeches to prevent blood-clotting, and traditional bakers have revived age-old methods for the long fermentation of dough to make bread healthy again.

Robots are not new – dozens of hydraulically-powered automatons were designed and made by the Muslim engineer, al-Jazari, over 800 years ago. Even airships are back in vogue again.

The burgeoning field of biomimicry, whereby humans imitate the designs and processes evolved by natural selection over 3.8 billion years, is an example of the rethinking of old ideas on a grand scale. 

The electric car has been the future of automobile engineering for a long time. The first electric car was built by an Aberdeen chemist, Robert Davidson, in 1837 and, by the end of the nineteenth century, fleets of electric taxis worked the streets of London, New York, Berlin and Paris. 

Then cheaper, safer cars powered by internal combustion engines shunted the more environmentally-friendly electric cars off the roads. South African-born techpreneur Elon Musk named his first mainstream Tesla electric car the Model S. ‘S’ is short for sedan but it is also the letter just before ‘T’ in the alphabet. He made the point that electric cars were invented before Ford’s fossil fuel-guzzling Model-Ts. 

As an aside, we may in future regard the internal combustion engine, together with the flush toilet, cigarettes, DDT, A-bomb, Ford Edsel, fast food, CFCs, land mines, refined sugar, fizzy drinks and high-heeled shoes, as some of the worst inventions of all time. Also, let’s remember that the universal symbol of innovation, the incandescent light bulb, is one of our worst inventions as it is so grossly inefficient. 

In South Africa the development of modern food, drink, grooming and medicinal products from indigenous knowledge are also examples of this trend and, in the age of internet-streamed music, the coolest way for Mango Groove to release a new album is on vinyl. Perhaps we are putting too much emphasis on the importance of novelty and disruption and ignoring the role that rethinking and rediscovery can and should play? 

On Tuesday 14 March, 1pm-2pm in the Monument's Olive Schreiner Hall you can hear Mike Bruton speak on the topic, Why is science important?

"Science is under fire around the world as people are questioning the value of science and of science-based products. Significant scientific

discoveries, such as evolution, global warming and climate change, are being questioned.

Furthermore, anti-science and pseudo-science views are gaining popularity, especially through social media... Science not only provides the basic tools for us to understand our built and natural environments but also provides the theoretical framework for the development of new technologies that allow us to improve our standard of living while also living more sustainably.

The scientific method also provides us with an objective way of thinking and problem solving that is useful in all walks of life. 

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