Tuesday, May 25, 2010


As a native Louisianan, I’ve been deeply dismayed about the oil spill in the Gulf. Although I’m presently doing my half-year sojourn on The Mountain at Sewanee, I keep up with the daily news regarding the methods presented to rid the Gulf waters and marshes of oil deposits. Today, I received an e-mail with an attachment that presented a simple solution to this problem. Here's the link: www.wimp.com/solutionoil. It was proposed by two good ole southern boys. I don’t  know whether the idea is a spoof or an idea for serious consideration, but I was fascinated with the demonstration given by the good ole boys. Two men, one of whom was dressed in overalls, appeared in the demonstration. On a table they had placed two basins filled with clear water into which they poured dark oil. Then they took handfuls of hay and stirred them into the oily water. After a few moments of stirring, the man in overalls scooped out the hay, and the oil adhered to it, leaving the water clean. The good ole boys explained that hay spread over Gulf waters would absorb the oil spill, and the saturated hay would drift toward beaches and marshes where it could be scooped up by machines.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? As I said, I don’t know whether the idea is a spoof or is valid, but it appears to me that the answers to most problems are just as simple as the good ole boys’ solution. Consider the problem of marking your place in a book without the bookmark slipping out. A man named Spencer Silver, who was employed by 3-M Research Labs, was trying to find a stronger adhesive and developed weak glue instead. The weak adhesive stuck to things but it could be lifted off. No one knew what to do with it, but one day another scientist named Arthur Fry, while singing in the church choir, used a bookmarker for his hymnal, and remembered Silver’s adhesive. He decided to coat his markers with the weak glue. The markers kept his place and could be lifted off without tearing the pages of his hymnal. Voila! Post-its!

What about the problem of finding a better method of fastening shoes and the solution of "Velcro?" While hiking one day with his dog through a field of bur plants, a Swiss naturalist, George de Mestral, returned home covered with burs. Mestral examined the burs that had stuck to his trousers under a microscope and discovered many small hooks that enabled the bur to cling to loops in the fabric of his trousers. After examining the bur thoroughly, he conceived the idea of a two-sided fastener, one side with stiff hooks like the burs and the other side with loops like the fabric in his trousers. He decided to call the invention "Velcro" (Velour and crochet combined), and the intention of the inventor was to rival the zipper with his fastener. It has actually caused a revolution in shoe fasteners—out with shoe strings, in with burs.

In the food world, the problem of raw meat as table fare once existed; that is, until the Chinese accidentally discovered how to roast pig and solved the problem of waning appetite. According to Charles Lamb in his “Dissertation Upon Roast Pig,” the first seventy thousand years, man ate raw meat. One day in China, Ho’Ti went into the woods and left his son, Bo-Bo, in charge of taking care of their home. Bo-Bo loved to play with fire and while doing so, a spark escaped into straw, and the house and a litter of farrowed pigs burned up. Bo-Bo was wringing his hands over his misfortune when he detected a delicious scent and bent down to see if it emanated from the pig. He touched the pig to see if it was still alive and crumbs of scorched pig skin came away on his fingers. He sampled it and voila! Cracklings! Roast pig! Cochon de lait, as we say in Cajun country! An accidental invention of delicious food had occurred. Roasting a pig on a spit followed a century later. So, the problem of what to eat for dinner was solved by a simple house fire. Of course, this is also an example of learning to do something the hard way. But, then, the Chinese symbol for the word “crisis” is written as “opportunity,” so everything always works out for the best, right?

Well, that’s a far-out example of man’s accidental inventiveness, despite his lack of intention and creativity, but Charles Lamb did present a good ending to the story of a house fire. And this simple tome about a better method of solving problems could go on and on, but accidental or intentional, solutions are constantly occurring, and I’ve learned that AHA! moments abound in the universe. They often emerge from disparate sources, and even good ole southern boys can be the fathers of invention. So don’t dismiss the hay idea until it has been proven invalid! Who knows, the oil barons may come upon it while scanning the internet and suddenly claim the solution as one of their brilliant AHA! moments.

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