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How Universities And Businesses Are Trying To Engineer More Accidental Genius

Jul 13, 2018
Originally published on July 13, 2018 6:44 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

To be color deficient or color blind is a common condition. It affects millions of people in the world. And not long ago, an inventor happened on a formula for special glasses. They have been changing lives. And it was an accident. Sarah Gonzalez from our Planet Money podcast visited this inventor and wondered how to engineer more accidental genius.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: You may have seen the videos online. They're videos of people seeing color for the first time - grandmas and grandpas, little kids putting on a pair of these special glasses. And all of a sudden...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Crying) Color.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Can you see my shirt? Purple.

GONZALEZ: The guy who accidentally invented these miracle glasses is a former glassblower and current independent glass scientist in Berkeley, Calif. His office is at the end of a dark concrete hallway.

This is so dungeon-y.

DON MCPHERSON: Ah, you're back.

GONZALEZ: This is Don McPherson. In the 1990s, McPherson's big contribution to the world was protective eyewear for surgeons who were using a certain laser in the operating room. His friend Mike borrowed those operating room glasses one day on a Frisbee field. And when he put them on, he saw something he'd never seen before - orange, the fluorescent orange cones on the field.

MCPHERSON: I said, what are you talking about, Mike? And he said, I'm color blind.

GONZALEZ: McPherson stumbled onto a problem that one in 12 men and one in 200 women have. And sure, his surgeon glasses accidentally helped his friend Mike see orange. But no one wants to just see orange. McPherson got funding from the National Institutes of Health to perfect his magical glasses. He started a company, called it EnChroma. And nine whole years of research later, he had a product. But no one was buying it because no one believed his glasses would work.

MCPHERSON: It was difficult, absolutely.

GONZALEZ: But then one employee had this great idea to put deflated balloons in each box of color-blind glasses. People start blowing these balloons up and filming their loved ones seeing color for the first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: For real? This is really how it looks?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Laughter) Oh, my God.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Look at my pants.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Blue jeans, right?

(LAUGHTER)

GONZALEZ: Some of the greatest discoveries in the world happened just like this, totally randomly and by accident - penicillin, X-ray images, the smoke detector, popsicles. So universities and businesses are trying to see if they can create the conditions for the next great accidental invention. Some of their ideas drive Pagan Kennedy crazy.

PAGAN KENNEDY: What kind of desk size would make people most creative? Should the desk have three seats at it or two seats?

GONZALEZ: Kennedy is a writer who has spent much of her career studying accidental inventors. She says there's an obsession with staircases at big universities right now, like serendipity-causing staircases.

KENNEDY: Very, very fancy staircases that in themselves cost billions of dollars that are supposed to make you bump into other people.

GONZALEZ: She says we know what leads to good accidents.

KENNEDY: Giving people lots and lots of money and just try things for years and years and years and years without expecting results.

GONZALEZ: Also, diversity.

KENNEDY: The more diverse kinds of people you bring in, what they can observe in the world - like, what kind of accidents they can have and learn from is going to be really much more of a spectrum.

GONZALEZ: Take Don McPherson. If he didn't have a color-blind friend on that Frisbee field with him, he would have never noticed the accidental side effect. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.