Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Nature's Intellectual Property

I just watched the Charlie Rose interview with Liv Ulmann and Kate Blanchett about the new production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”, playing at BAM in New York. Liv Ullman, a terrific actress herself, is the director of this play, and she said something that strangely applied to the rest of my days conversations. She spoke about that moment when observing an actor that you are directing, when the actor gets it exactly right. The moment is so moving that words cannot describe why it is so perfect. The director is left with a dilemma. Should she tell the actor that he or she got it right, and try to figure out why, or just leave it and be happy it is there? There is risk in both of these approaches. Speaking of it may intellectualize a purely instinctual and brilliant act of the subconscious mind. On the other hand, not speaking of it may mean that it was simply one moment, which may never again be repeated. I know what she is talking about, both from my days in theatre and now working in science. There is a sense of the complexity of inspiration that is humbly rooted in our knowledge of all we don’t know. Human psychology and character development are so deeply intertwined with life experience, theatrical experience, and character interpretation. There is this same thing that happens with invention, and can be equally as fragile.

There are different strongly held beliefs in how to handle intellectual property. Invention of a new technology is not entirely different from the process of bringing a character to life. Like the play, the invention is a unification of previous ideas. Views on how to handle these ideas have varied, and distinguished inventors have disagreed on whether the patent system is truly the best place for them to be revealed. There is an idea, that until the open source movement in software, seemed quant. Benjamin Franklin said after inventing the open stove; “as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.” This is a highly romantic ideal that has not been very practical. Even not for profit Universities and hospitals now routinely seek patents in order to finance further research. Patents actually do half of what Franklin was suggesting. They do allow others to make and understand the exact invention. They just can’t do it freely for 20 years. By the way, Thomas Jefferson agreed with Franklin on this account. Luckily for them they made their money in other ways, not relying on science and technology for an income. Most private inventors and corporations don’t have this benefit. There is another way that inventions are handled in modern society, which is through trade secrets. The concept of trade secrets is best known in the food and beverage industry. The secret formulas to Coca Cola or to KFC have been famously guarded. This is true though in nearly every product and process, even ones who have extremely strong patents. The truth about trade secrets may be much less brilliant, but more mysterious than a patent. I feel that in most cases a trade secret is something in a process that makes a product unique, even if the company or inventor doesn’t know what it is. I think that it is very possible that Coca Cola does have a secret recipe, but that the recipe by now must have made its way to competitors. The only explanation then on how Coke is still different is that something in the way they make it is different, so they keep making it the same way. This is not so much invention, but chance.

Nature works in similar ways to the trade secret method. There is no patent on trees or minerals. They have come into their present form through a process that worked to keep them intact. Recently while working here in Paris with a very renowned polymer chemist, we were discussing a strange natural phenomenon. For 75 years chemists have been able to create a synthetic rubber which has the exact same chemical structure as natural rubber that comes from the Hevea tree. This was a major development, but strangely when we look at the properties of the natural rubber and the equivalent synthetic, the results are different. With all of our technical and analytical knowledge, we don’t know why this is. For this reason Natural Rubber is still used for many applications. When I was discussing this with my father, he suggested that this was somehow natures “trade secret”. He is right. There is something that for the last billion or so years has been refined to create the latex that is so unique. Nature is not an intelligent being, so likely it does not know why. It just happened, and continues to happen the same way over and over. The same thing is true of silicon, which has a near perfect structure. We would love to create something this perfect in a lab, but we haven’t had the billions of years of trial and error yet. I think with the prototype to evaluate, we should be able to do it faster.

This brings me back to the actors, to instinct and to chance innovation. Perhaps most of what we do is about freezing a process on stage, in a factory or in a lab at the exact right moment. It is also possible that this ability to know when and how to do this is what makes great directors, inventors and companies.


  1. Hello, Matthew got your twitt about your new blog. Congradulations I cant wait to read your views.


  2. Thanks Najee. I plan on writing one on your pieces. I have an idea.

  3. The relationship between frozen form and process is a fascinating one.

    What makes Nature the most sublime inventor is that even at the point of innovation it is already in motion. Even as Nature is creating "forms" it is not frozen in time; natural processes are constantly in motion, changing, evolving, discarding, liberating themselves from what is no longer useful or relevant to the species.

    The same can be said of great moments in acting in that they also thrive on the unfrozen, on that which is alive in the moment of the play and yet is already changing with the intentions of the character, the relationship of the actor to that particular audience, how the actor is feeling on a given night, etc. In other words, great acting needs to approximate the aliveness of nature as well.

    The same can be true of great inventiveness in science and technology. Staying in the moment, following through on an inspiration, giving birth to new ideas and forms while simultaneously moving forward to discover ever-deepening relationships to these ideas and forms. Never becoming so attached to a new idea or product or innovation that it gets in the way of a continuous state of becoming, of gestating and giving birth to what is always potentially new and essential in the world.

  4. That is such a good point Robert. There is never a moment to freeze. This is something that relates to the natural rubber example. As I said above, when you analyze the chemical structure of it, and the synthetic they are the same. The way to see a difference is to measure the rheology, which is flow, of both. That is, only while changing are the unique qualites observed.


Please feel free to comment. It helps me with ideas, and to start a discussion.