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There’s a certain quality to discovery, exploration, and discussion of priceless things.
By which I mean things that have clear and articulable value that are simply so great, and so different, that they are classed as inestimable, or priceless, or curiosities or unusual ideas, that we all hope will someday become part of normal life. They tend to involve significant shifts away from current practice, and estimating their value and impact requires a firm underlying sense of value, not simply a rule of thumb for measuring relative improvement and marginal changes in efficiency.
These ideas and discoveries often have one or two concrete subinstances with known implementations (often where the underlying idea was discovered). These are themselves valued normally, and comparable to other known techniques or materials or systems. Often that initial implementation is used to gauge the value of the broader idea. And when eventually someone uncovers a natural and predictable extension of the idea in a more universal or world-changing direction, they are credited with the innovation and discovery; at which point the ‘priceless’ is given a price, or at least an industry / discipline / noun cluster.
Here’s a fair example, from the world of surface effects, van der Waals forces, and adhesion (via the Clark Gecko Lab):
Geckos climb vertical and even inverted surfaces with millions of adhesive foot-hairs on each toe. Each foot-hair [seta] is only 100 μm long, and splits into up to 1000 tinier tips, 200 nm in diameter – below the wavelength of visible light. [The adhesion mechanism] requires minimal attachment force, leaves no residue, is directional, detaches without measurable forces, and works underwater, in a vacuum, and on nearly every surface material and profile.
The adhesive is so strong that a single seta can lift an ant (20 mg). A million setae could lift the weight of a child (20 kg) and fit onto the area of a Dime. [A 100 g Tokay gecko has two million setae in all on its 4 feet.] … We provide direct support for the van der Waals hypothesis of gecko adhesion… each species has a different type of seta.
The experiments leading to the above conclusions were done a decade ago; the photo above was the cover of PNAS in 2002. Not only is this method of adhesion unique in 5 or 6 different excellent properties, even within the mundane categories incrementalists can compare it to, it is an 2-magnitude improvement over conventional adhesive. Since then naturally some people have been working to make useful products out of this; so far without success. Geckskin is one of the first commercial products released, by a group based in Massachusetts. But we are clearly a long way away from discussions about how this changes our basic assumptions about what we can and can’t do with materials.
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