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Inventing 101

Some people just have a knack for building things, or taking things apart to make them work better. My grandfather is one of these people – he looks at the stuff he uses everyday and tinkers with it to make it better suit his needs. As a kid, I laughed at his toaster tongs (so you don’t burn your fingers), his long-reach grasping device (so you can reach things beyond arm’s length), and his half-sized roll of paper towels (so you get exactly how much you want). As an adult, I recognize the sheer practicality of each of these items. And I’ve also seen very similar items pop up on the shelves of the supermarket or on late-night infomercials.

In astrophysics, technology and science are tied together in equally practical ways. The questions asked by scientists inspire the creation of new technologies. In turn, the innovation of new technologies creates the opportunity for advances in science. NASA depends on this cycle to drive both scientific and technological opportunities and achievements. Behind the scenes, scientists and engineers are busy putting together the hardware and software that make new discoveries possible.

Our first episode back in 2007 featured an interview with two key members of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) team – Matt Greenhouse and Harvey Moseley. We were especially keen to learn about the satellite’s innovative microshutter array, a new technology pioneered at Goddard by Dr. Moseley and his colleagues. You can hear that interview here. The microshutters will allow the satellite’s instruments to observe very faint, distant objects while carefully filtering out unwanted light from nearer, brighter sources. They act as tiny shutters that can be precisely controlled to view and block specific portions of the sky. Never before has a satellite had such control over what it is observing, or to observe so many different sources at once!

The need for a controlled field-of-view drove the innovation of the microshutter array. But its invention will now allow scientists to observe more objects, and observe them better than has ever been possible. See the cycle at work? The scientists and engineers that develop neat new technology like this have to figure out how to make things work in very inhospitable environments, and usually without any possibility of being able to correct mistakes after launch. So they design, tinker, and test (and test and test) to put together something that will solve a problem – and open new doors.

Today’s episode follows up with Dr. Moseley about the process by which new technologies are invented and assembled. If you like to tinker, this is a must-listen episode about how to meet a demand, get started on a project, and learn from your mistakes.

Check out Professional Tinkering, released today!

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