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2008 January February 25 Ideas on the Verge

Patents Gone Wild

Technology is changing faster than our patent system can keep up. “We’re not patenting a new mousetrap,” declares Haas professor of economics Richard Gilbert, “but the idea of putting a mouse in a mousetrap. Today it is possible to patent business methods, software, genetically modified life forms, education methods, and surgical techniques.” Patents, which grant up […]

From a Generation that Keeps on Giving

The late Flora Hewlett reconnects to Cal 73 years after she graduated The news in September that the Hewlett Foundation was awarding $113 million—the largest private gift in university history—to Berkeley may have surprised many who think of Stanford as the sole academic recipient of largesse from the founders of Hewlett-Packard. In fact, the story behind […]

Black Venus and her Rainbow Tribe

Southwest France’s central Dordogne River valley is filled with imposing medieval castles built not for pleasure, but to defend the region during the Hundred Years’ War. However, as you make your way down the valley, just west of the village of Sarlat, you may catch sight of something a little different: a Renaissance castle with […]


In an era of technological triumph, a physicist-turned-philosopher dared to argue that science routinely rewards conformists and rejects real innovators. The intellectual revolution he sparked is still being fought today. Thomas S. Kuhn transformed the way we think about science, revealing it as a messier, less logical, and occasionally more sordid process than your high school […]

Applied Kuhn: The Berkeley/BP Project

If it’s to escape the fate of so many normal sciences, the Energy Biosciences Institute must be continually monitored by outside observers, including non-scientists. It’s too early to tell whether the joint Berkeley-BP project represents a potential scientific and technological paradigm shift, or is a version of the same old paradigm of the automotive sciences. It […]

What it Was Really Like to Be the First Black Lawyer in Justice Dept’s Civil Rights Division

Thelton Eugene Henderson didn’t study the civil rights movement; he lived it. After earning his law degree from UC Berkeley in 1962, he joined the Justice Department as the first African-American lawyer in its civil rights division. Working with his mentor and fellow Cal grad, John Doar, Henderson traveled often to the South to monitor […]

Simple Idea, Huge Difference

Increasing cooking efficiency for Darfur refugees saves lives There’s a certain aura of mystery surrounding the birth of an idea, but rarely is the question asked: What’s next? Ashok Gadgil, Ph.D. ’80, knows that the “eureka!” moment is just the beginning; developing and implementing an idea is the hardest part. The senior staff scientist at Lawrence […]

Bad Science

Spotting the Darwins in a field of Lamarcks Every day scientists announce frontier discoveries or breakthroughs. Some signal new technologies, others life-improving or life-saving medicines. Most never pan out. In March of 1989, a pair of chemists announced a discovery that essentially took a sandblaster to modern physics. But rather than publish in the journal Nature, […]

No.9 Molecular Healing

The big idea: Nanotech is handing medical science a scalpel in place of a chemical sledgehammer. At the molecular (as opposed to cellular) level, chemical elements change radically. Bouncy elements become hard; sticky ones become slick. In the macro world, gold is used to fill cavities. In the nanoworld, gold can be bonded to a […]

No.8 Microscopic Dance Party

The big idea: Physics professor Alex Zettl and a team of solid-state physics researchers have created the world’s smallest radio. It has all the major parts of a conventional radio—tuner, antenna, amplifier, and demodulator—but, remarkably, all in one tiny tube that’s 10,000 times thinner than the width of a single hair. Traditional radios receive electromagnetic […]

No.7 Bad Bugs with the Best of Intentions

Cancer-eating bacteria The big idea: J. Christopher Anderson is building a new version of E. coli and endowing it with special abilities: a sugar coating that acts as a cloaking device against the human immune system, a tool that busts through cell walls, a computer-like sensory system that locates tumors. The idea is to build a […]

No.6 Grandma’s Little Helper

Eldertech The big idea: “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”—the cheesy TV-ad catchphrase should reach its final resting place shortly. For elders needing help, at-home support is in the works. The players: The goal of Eldertech is simple: Use medical monitoring with wireless sensors to improve quality of life among the elderly. A project […]