Crazy Ideas

Inspiration. We all want to create something from an “aha!” moment, to have the light bulb turn on and come up with a creative, new idea whether it’s a work of art, a piece of music, or a great story…or a design for a spacecraft. Yep, engineers are designers too. Just ask our resident rocket scientist and he’ll tell you. Creativity is a huge part of the design process engineers use to make so many of the things we use on a day to day basis, not to mention intricate inventions in science labs and factories. More can be found on that topic in the dissertation that gave him the PhD behind his name.

You never know when you’ll see or experience something and suddenly, you know! Here’s a better way to do that! Or, what if we tried this?! Or, I know, wouldn’t it work so much better if we…These are the kinds of moments I want to help make happen for my boys. There’s so much spark and joy in the realization, in the trying and trying again and making something new or better!

Take a look at this. Artist Theo Jansen designed these crazy creatures made of plastic tubes that live on and roam the beaches of the Netherlands. We got a chance to see them up close at a museum exhibit last year in San Francisco.

And I mean up close! Eddie and Dad had a go at making them go: they have legs since wheels aren’t so effective in sand.

These “strandbeests” and their ability to harness the wind and walk by themselves to interact with their environment were part of the inspiration for this:

Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE)

My husband (the rocket scientist) had a crazy idea and now NASA is funding a few years of work delving into it to see just how feasible it might be. It’s a rover for Venus, where it’s too hot for electronic processors and the atmospheric pressure is so high the few spacecraft to make it to the surface only lasted a few hours. Hence, the automaton, a mechanical robot made of materials that can take the heat. Literally.

Originally the wind-powered rover’s design even had legs like the strandbeests.

Jonathan invited Theo Jansen to JPL where he worked alongside the engineers on the project, brainstorming and developing the crazy idea. And yeah, maybe now it has tracks instead of cool walking legs, but it’s a reminder to me to encourage crazy ideas. When the boys have that sparkle in their eyes, I want to imagine along with them. The final product may not look like the first crazy idea, but it’s a learning journey, a process.

Actually, that’s how innovation and new ideas happen. We like to describe it as a “Eureka!” moment, a flash of inspiration, but in truth it’s more like a “‘liquid network’, where you have lots of different ideas that are together, different backgrounds, different interests, jostling with each other, bouncing off each other.” (This theory comes from a great TED talk by Steven Johnson) And it’s true, a new idea, is fundamentally a new network of neurons in our brains, firing together for the first time. It makes sense then for ideas to materialize, not necessarily in the quiet of a laboratory, staring at the data, but in a social setting, around a conference table as the data is discussed and questions are asked and answered.

This is so exciting for those of us trying to encourage our kids to innovate, follow their hunches, and be deep and creative thinkers! It doesn’t come down to them having the right toys or big imaginations or time left to themselves to think. This means it happens around the dinner table as we talk and share our thoughts and experiences. It happens when we lay down with them at night in their beds, snuggling and chatting. It happens as we drive across town or walk down the street together. New ideas, new neural networks.

Last night at dinner, Eddie held up two round crackers, one in each hand, their edges touching as he slowly rotated them. “Why do gears both turn together?” he asked, which prompted a physics lesson and discussion of interlocking teeth.


This is where the magic happens, guys. This is where they learn to put two and two together, in the social network of a family living life together, playing together, talking about stuff, asking questions and sharing expertise. In this space, our homes and our day-to-day life, new crazy ideas come into focus, and the world is a better place for it!

2 thoughts on “Crazy Ideas

  1. Pingback: Living that Conference-Wife Life – Launching Rocket Babies

  2. Pingback: Symposium in the Rain – Launching Rocket Babies

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