The New Yorker has a nice piece about Manu Prakash and his work on the Foldscope, a portable, paper-based microscope that costs about one dollar. As the author pointed out the whole thing can be put into “a nine-by-twelve-inch envelope.” Here are the details:
The paper is printed with botanical illustrations and perforated with several shapes, which can be punched out and, with a series of origami-style folds, woven together into a single unit. The end result is about the size of a bookmark. The lens—a speck of plastic, situated in the center—provides a hundred and forty times magnification. The kit includes a second lens, of higher magnification, and a set of stick-on magnets, which can be used to attach the Foldscope to a smartphone, allowing for easy recording of a sample with the phone’s camera. I put my kit together in fifteen minutes, and when I popped the lens into place it was with the satisfaction of spreading the wings of a paper crane.
The Foldscope performs most of the functions of a high-school lab microscope, but its parts cost less than a dollar.
So what? So Prakash and his colleagues are trying to deploy the device around the world to increase the way people gather and share data to understand the world. Folks use the device but also can go to “Foldscope Explore, a Web site where recipients of the kits can share photos, videos, and commentary. A plant pathologist in Rwanda uses the Foldscope to study fungi afflicting banana crops. Maasai children in Tanzania examine bovine dung for parasites. An entomologist in the Peruvian Amazon has happened upon an unidentified species of mite. One man catalogues pollen; another tracks his dog’s menstrual cycle.”
These seemingly far ranging interests thus connect to what Brett Frischmann, Mike Madison, and Kathy Strandburg have been studying: a knowledge commons. Just within Prakash’s interest in “biomimicry—understanding how and why certain organisms work so well, and using that knowledge to build new tools,” the project increases the ability to know about “Plants, insects, tiny bugs under the sink, bacteria,” that do amazing things. New species can be identified, and so the project creates thousands of eyes not only for Prakash’s work but others in the field.
As I read the article and the details of low-cost tech being used around the world for a variety of problems that locals identified, I thought of the way FabLabs and the work of Neil Gershenfeld have approached and supported the maker-movement. And as I went on, I found out that Prakash did his work with Gershenfeld’s Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT. Can you say school of thought?
Prakash’s group is looking for ways to aid in early detection of disease and water contamination using low-cost technology. At the same time, the world may be re-experiencing the wonder of the first tools that pushed our ability to understand the world. As the article described, Prakash and Jim Cybulski, (then Prakash’s student, now chief collaborator on the project) were in Nigeria studying malaria. They met with young students, caught a mosquito “that was feeding on one of the children and mounted it on a paper slide, which they inserted into the Foldscope.” The student looked at the slide and
“For the first time, he realized this was his blood, and this little proboscis is how it feeds on his blood,” Prakash said. “To make that connection—that literally this is where disease passes on, with this blood, his blood—was an absolutely astounding moment.” The exercise had its intended effect. The boy said, “I really should sleep under a bed net.”
Scale and change the world technology can be small, simple, and accessible. Folks who press the practical and tee up the skills and tools to learn and dream of bigger things are part of an ongoing season of giving that I dig. Happy holidays to all.