When Manu Prakash was growing up in India, he was obsessed with skeletons. Upon finding a dead rabbit, he would clean and painstakingly reassemble its 200-plus bones.
"It physically told me how intricate every object actually is," Prakash tells me. "The more you see, the more you want to see."
The 36-year-old bioengineering professor at Stanford, best known for co-inventing the Foldscope, a pocket-size paper microscope that costs less than $1, was recently awarded the MacArthur Foundation’s Genius Grant of $625,000. I caught up with Prakash by phone recently to talk about honing the art of intense observation and the power of immersive science.
From our conversation, I get why he’s considered a "genius." Not only does he use observations of natural phenomenon to build new, important tools to fight disease, but he’s also building tools to spread something more important: a sense of wonder about nature. A sense of wonder is what gets people asking scientific questions in the first place.
There are two main arms of Prakash’s work. First, there’s the pure science. At his lab at Stanford, Prakash tries to make sense of the physics of the microscopic world: He and his team have discovered the secrets of how certain insects walk on water and how small traces of chemicals can make water droplets move like living creatures. Prakash then tries to recreate these beautiful tiny movements of nature in tools, like postcard-size tests for malaria or a "lab-on-a-chip" device powered by a hand crank that can do medical tests.
"The idea in physics is to think about toy models, which is the simplest possible model that captures the events of the phenomena but reduces it to the simplest possible form," Prakash says. "The better we understand natural phenomena, both in biological and physical existence, the better adapted we will be to build powerful tools."
That idea of simplicity fuels not just Prakash’s science but also his ambitions to stoke curiosity in others.
To date, Prakash has distributed tens of thousands of his Foldscopes to students, researchers, and others (they’ll go on sale to the public in 2017). He wants the Foldscope, which uses a lens powerful enough to see red blood cells floating in a drop of blood, to be like a pencil: one in every student’s desk. It’s a part of a movement called "frugal science" that aims to make scientific tools more accessible worldwide.
Here’s more from our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
Loving science is about loving discovery, marveling at beauty, and being an explorer
Brian Resnick: The Foldscope. It seems like the intention there is to just get people excited about scientific observations. Is that correct?
Manu Prakash: Absolutely. There are many phenomenal things just happening in nature, and they happen right in front of us and we just ignore them and move on — [but] we can engage a broader group of people thinking about these things.
Once you build your Foldscope, we don't tell people what to see. To me, that has been something philosophical: The discoveries that matter the most to us as individuals are our own discoveries.
I can Google anything, I can see what a red blood cell looks like. But to see your own cell, to see your own T cell crawling around — that just means something different. It's very valuable to think about experiences in science and how do you make these experiences genuine.
There is no hierarchy on that site. There are posts written by me and scientists like me. There are posts written by a 6-year-old and [people] anywhere from a little village in India to a place in Pakistan.
BR: So you've sent tens of thousands of these microscopes out into the world. Are there any stories that came back that have really stuck with you?
MP: There are thousands of stories. The tools are interesting, but the community is probably the most inspiring thing.
There is a 6-year-old girl that has a few series of posts. She was inspired by the movie Frozen and got excited about what if she was the designer of that set — how would she come up with the fascinating [crystal] structures they use in this movie?
She researched over months and months all kinds of crystals she could find, all the way to medicine cabinets, to ice cream, the maple taffy. It's incredible to just watch her go and you watch her progression of how she came to that experiment.
There are hundreds and hundreds of stories like this; it's a continued progression of the same person and their way of thinking.
BR: The educational value of that type of experience seems obvious, but it may be hard to define. How do you define it?
MP: The experience lives with that person. I know so many biologists, including myself, who had a start by just looking under a microscope, and there is a sense of wonder that you can't place.
BR: As a kid, I collected minerals. I had an illustrated book of minerals and crystals I must have broken the spine on. You were really into small animal bones.
MP: This might sound terrible, but I used to find dead rabbits and then we would clean them up in hydrogen peroxide until the bones were perfectly white. The rabbit happens to have as many bones as humans, roughly. You have extremely small bones, and I remember spending four months building an entire three-dimensional skeleton.
I would do this for many animals. It was fascinating because when you boil them in hydrogen peroxide pot, the bones, they're all mixed up. You need to know every single bone to know where it's going to go. I don't know why I enjoyed it, but I did.
BR: At that young age, it’s more about cool than science. Or it’s like a game.
MP: I feel it's more about the tangible aspects of that work. It physically told me how intricate every object actually is. In every level deeper you look, you realize there is more to be and more to know. The more you see, the more you want to see.
On frugal science
BR: So you’ve helped conceive of "frugal science," this idea that scientific materials should be cheap, easy to distribute, and equitable. What is your definition of frugal science and what should people know about it?
MP: The best tool is the one that you have with you, not the one that you have sitting at home. From day one, when you’re trying to design a solution, it needs to be scalable to a planetary scale.
With the microscope, the goal was to make something very rugged that's going to be with you and is extremely functional.
We made the decision that it needs to be an instrument to operate independent of any cellphones and any cameras. You can augment it by attaching a cellphone or a camera to then record and hear. But it was important that it would stand alone.
BR: So are you trying to adapt existing tools, like microscopes, or build new tools altogether?
MP: It's both. One is taking cues from what's the most powerful tool that we all use as scientists every day. They need to be adapted to the point where they are field deployable.
It absolutely also applies to these new tools that we haven't even invented yet. Primarily because if you watch physical phenomena long enough, you figure out how to exploit them in ways such that you could build tangible tools out of them. There's definitely a lot of work that we think about that is slightly longer term but is about newer tools. New capabilities don't always come in shiny boxes.
BR: Do you have any examples of that — a completely new tool that also would fit into that frugal category?
MP: There is a beautiful paper which was described by a physicist, [Seth] Putterman, in UCLA, where he took Scotch tape and he demonstrated that peeling Scotch tape generates X-rays.
MP: It's insane. Think about it. It's absolutely insane. He demonstrated that just using tape and a little bit of vacuum, you can actually take somebody's X-ray. That's now spun off to a company that's focused on a specific thing, but the stuff that sparks an idea is the fact that up till now X-rays are very powerful. Hundred of different tools have been built around it but they all have used traditional means of generating X-rays.
BR: Can I do that at my house?
MP: You can do it in your house, absolutely. You know the screeching sound that you hear? That's the moment when X-rays are being generated. You can even put SLR cameras in very low light conditions and see photons being admitted as well, at the moment the tape peels off.
On cultivating more curiosity in the world
BR: Do you think it’s possible to teach someone to be curious? Or do they just have to have it in them?
MP: I've never met anybody who is not curious. That's just how we are — and thank God we are that way.
We truly want to keep a global focus. We believe that there is an immense value when a kid in Namibia can interact with a kid in Alaska and a kid in DC and a kid in India. I use the word "kid" as a broad description for a curious person. I'm a kid, you're a kid. That's what I mean.
BR: Are you pessimistic about anything?
MP: I wouldn't do my job if I had an ounce of pessimism. I feel so lucky in any way and form that I get to spend my day and my life thinking about these things, thinking about the breadth of science. Science makes me happy. I wonder why more people don't feel that way. I'm trying to understand that by just sharing findings and sharing tools.
BR: Where I have pessimism on this subject is people who don't like thinking about science, who reject it even. Anti-science is a thing that exists. There are just some people you're never going to reach, right?
MP: I would happily fail just trying. The reason for that is the fact that I think the people who have rejected the notion of science or have an "eh" kind of a view toward it have not actually met science.
Science is about open questions that "I" care about. Everybody cares about questions. Then I want to have enough tools, and all possible tools, to explore those questions. Some of them get purely philosophical, some of them could be pencil and paper, some of them are just internal gut feeling that cannot even be put on paper. I think overall the lesson is you have to brush away a little bit of your opinion of what science is. It's kind of like putting on a pair of eyeglasses. You don't even need to call it a microscope, frankly.
It also is a little bit about giving people time. Part of the value of Foldscope is, of course we do workshops and schools and things, but the goal is once it's done the tool is there. You need to just take it with you. You might put it on your shelf for two weeks and then suddenly say, "Let me look at it again." In the privacy of your own home, privacy of your own environment, out in the woods, while you have nobody looking at you, you register something.
BR: You’re a new father, with 4-month-old twin girls. Is there something about being a parent that changes your perspective in problem solving?
MP: Absolutely. I am observing them observing. I can look at them for 24 hours, not getting bored.
Frankly, I've always been excited about this idea that the future is the people who will come in front of us. Now I hold the future in my hand in some sense. There is a sense of gratitude but also renewed feelings of passion.
They are forming a model of the world, and if I give them a book, it's not a book for them — it's a hammer. They start pushing it around with things or they will use gravity by dropping it. I really find it fascinating.
And over time, they are probably the most curious observers because they're seeing all of this for the first time. Somehow after living in this world, we build some crust or rust around us that protects us from all these observations.
BR: They make you — already a super curious person — a little bit more curious?
BR: Final questions. How does the MacArthur grant change you, your life, and your ambitions and your science?
MP: I think overall I haven't expected any of this. This was such an honor. There is that overwhelming feeling, but having said that, I haven't given it enough thought to think about what's next. I know there are so many things ahead, so I am very, very excited, but I'm also just taking the time to even understand what this means.
BR: What’s next for you?
MP: In a couple of weeks a couple of people from my lab and I are heading out to Madagascar. We are taking our tools [to track mosquito species] out to the field, testing them. We are running workshops at a couple of schools there, and the goal is to really think about a larger-scale implementations in Madagascar.
Also, I'm going out to look for more problems.