Commentary
10:00 am
Fri July 22, 2011

Building the Future

I had dinner the other night with perhaps the most amazing man in Michigan, a man who has been hard at work creating the future for more than half a century .

I’m talking about the inventor Stanford Ovshinsky, a man whose life story is better than any novel, and who has more than four hundred patents to his name. If you have a laptop computer, you have him to thank for the nickel-metal-hydride battery that powers it.

His inventions include the processes that makes solar cells practical, and the first rewrittable CDs and DVDs. Five years ago, he left the company he had founded to do all these things -- Energy Conversion Devices -- and promptly started a new firm. Ovshinsky Innovation, LLC.  After all, he was then barely in his mid-80s.

Today, he and his wife Rosa, a Chinese-born physicist, are hard at work on photovoltaics, which means harnessing a form of solar energy for practical purposes.  Ovshinsky is convinced that he can bring down the cost of solar energy considerably below coal, and and that hydrogen is the automotive fuel of the future.

By the way, he has a long and distinguished track record of making predictions that those in the know laughed at -- and then proving them wrong. There are those in many countries who think he may be the greatest living scientist. What makes that especially amazing is that he never even graduated from high school.

He does, however, have at least seven honorary doctorates from distinguished schools including the University of Michigan.

Ovshinsky still works more than full-time; after all, he doesn’t turn 89 till November. He usually wears a three-piece suit, and is the most sartorially distinguished inventor I have ever met.

Men in his position tend, in my experience, to look at the world through either apolitical or conservative eyes. But Stan Ovshinsky is different here too. He’s had a strong commitment to social justice his entire life, and as a young man sometimes took physical risks to organize workers in his native Akron.

Politically, his hero remains Eugene V. Debs, the great turn-of-the century socialist. But Ovshinsky is far less concerned about the past than the future.

He’s concerned with what’s been happening to Michigan - the entire country -really - and is flabbergasted that we’ve allowed so much manufacturing to go abroad with very little protest.

“When you destroy the industrial base of your country, its industrial capacity, it’s very hard to rebuild.” That doesn’t mean he thinks we are doomed never to be prosperous again.

“New science and new technology can do that, always have,” he told me. Yet he sees to his horror that politicians are cutting spending on education. Especially, on science.

“Energy and information and scientific literacy are the keys to the future,” he said. “All my life I have tried to create a culture that would produce new technology and new culture.”

Nor does he show the faintest signs of giving up the struggle.  From what I know about Stan Ovshinsky’s life, it is clear that his autobiography would be beyond fascinating.

But he dismisses any thought of writing one; he has way too much to do. Human life spans vary. But for some rare individuals, ninety years are not nearly enough.