A species of invention

Roughly 40,000 years ago, early Homo sapiens was exploring ways to create images on the rocky walls of caves. Until now, most scientists thought this innovation occurred primarily in Europe, where the oldest examples of cave art have been found. But a recent discovery on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi shows humans there were using pigments to create hand stencils around the same time as their counterparts in Europe. As Bruce Bower reports, scientists speculate that this type of artistic representation emerged multiple times, in groups all over the world. A very, very long time ago.

That discovery makes me wonder if the drive to innovate is simply part of who humans are. For more evidence, one need look no further than this issue’s cover story. For the team of engineers featured in Dana Mackenzie’s story, that innovation is inspired by what they call “kinetic shapes” and what the rest of us call spirals. The idea is to use spirals to move better, whether on a shoe that helps people with injuries walk more easily, on a skateboard that rocks and rolls, or on the tip of a crutch designed to give an assist to its user. Whether these devices pan out and become useful products remains to be seen. But the innovation bug is clearly thriving.

Also infected with that bug are the student participants in Broadcom MASTERS, a science competition run by Society for Science & the Public, which publishes Science News. Among the 2014 finalists were kids who had developed ways to better predict wildfires and recycle pizza boxes — grease and all. (Read about the winners here.)

What’s behind this invention bug? I’d nominate the human brain, which ceaselessly urges us to fiddle, tweak and improve what we have. As Laura Sanders describes, that brain might now have figured out a way to improve itself using tiny electrical shocks. A few pioneers have even started making brain zappers at home. Some are trying to find ways to deal with problems like depression. But many others just want to enhance brain performance — an iffy and possibly risky proposition, Sanders reports. I’d argue our brains already work quite well. But I guess it’s hard to stop when you are a species of invention.

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