For the past six years the DISCOVER Magazine Awards for Technological Innovation have been given in seven categories: Automotive & Transportation, Aviation & Aerospace, Computer Hardware & Electronics, Computer Software, Environment, Sight, and Sound. The seventh annual Discover Awards, presented on the following pages, have been expanded to include both an eighth category, the Editors’ Choice Award for Emerging Technology, and a $100,000 prize from the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation to foster innovation.
The emerging technology award is given by the editors of Discover to the creator of a promising new innovation or technology that, by virtue of its newness, does not fit into any of the other award categories. The 1996 Editors’ Choice Award goes to Toyoichi Tanaka, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the chief science adviser to Gel Sciences in Bedford, Massachusetts, for the development of smart hydrogels. Imagine a bowl of Jell-O suddenly swelling to 1,000 times its volume or shrinking 1,000-fold. Smart hydrogels are a new class of soft materials that, in response to a tiny change in temperature or light, a solvent, or another environmental stimulus, will swell up to several thousand times in volume or shrink that much. They can undergo these volume changes on a moment’s notice or slowly--whatever speed is designed into them.
Tanaka is trying to train these swell gels to release pharmaceuticals, like insulin, or suck up toxic wastes. The first product to incorporate a smart hydrogel is a golf shoe liner that expands to match the contour of the foot inside the shoe, the trigger being the foot’s temperature. Tanaka also wants to build artificial muscles out of smart hydrogels. A muscle just expands and contracts, says Tanaka, and that’s what these gels are quite good at doing.
The Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation, an independent federal agency, put up the $100,000 fellowship for an individual American who has improved, or is attempting to improve, the world through ingenuity and innovation. The money is intended to help the beneficiary get his or her innovation to the next level. The Columbus foundation evaluated all the nominees for the Discover Awards and selected as the 1996 recipient one of the finalists in the Computer Hardware & Electronics category, Kensall Wise, an electrical engineer at the University of Michigan, who built tiny electronic probes for monitoring and stimulating nerve cells in the brain.
In 1996 more than 4,000 companies, universities, and research institutions were invited to participate in the Discover Awards program. Discover’s editorial staff pared down the hundreds of nominees to 34 finalists in the seven core categories and turned them over to outside judges to select the winners. The finalists came together on June 1 for an Academy Awards-style ceremony at Epcot, outside Orlando, Florida. The culmination of the ceremony was the presentation of the Editors’ Choice Award to Toyoichi Tanaka, along with a $5,000 prize donated by Apple Computer, and the presentation of the $100,000 Columbus fellowship to Kensall Wise.