Strange but True: Software improves invention outcomes


Q: What if somebody set out to design a better, safer helmet for football players? What if that somebody were cognitive psychologist and chief technology officer Tony McCaffrey of Innovation Accelerator?

A: What's new in the world of invention is using computers to automate the process, says Paul Marks in "New Scientist" magazine. Here humans are following the "evolutionary algorithm" of the natural world — no more hit-or-miss or blind luck but more orderly and intelligent outcomes.

Innovation Accelerator's approach is to utilize software that lets the user describe a problem in human language "to help inventors notice easily missed features that, if addressed, could lead to a novel invention." Using revealing phrases, it then searches the US Patent and Trademark Office database for inventions that solve similar problems in other domains.

For example, McCaffrey wanted to reduce concussions among American football players, so the software "exploded" the search for ways "to reduce energy, absorb energy, exchange forces, lessen momentum, oppose force, alter direction and repel energy." Focusing on this last idea led the firm to invent a helmet that contained strong magnets to repel other players' helmets, lessening the impact of head clashes. Though a patent based on this concept had been registered a few weeks earlier, the principle was proved.

Q: You're no doubt familiar with the family of the five basic taste senses — sweet, sour, salty, bitter and — the latest addition — savory, or umami. But have you heard about a possible sixth sibling, dubbed "oleogustus"?

A: Purdue University researchers C.A. Running et al. report in "Chemical Senses" that humans can also detect foods that are too oily or fatty, says Teresa Shipley Feldhausen in "Science News" magazine. When some 50 volunteers were asked to distinguish among 15 taste samples, most could sort out some fats from the other five substances, even with plugged noses. For example, nearly two-thirds of tasters identified linoleic acid found in vegetable and nut oils as distinctive, even when processed to give the same mouth feel as the others.

Though pure oleogustus is unpleasant-tasting, when mixed with some of the other five tastes, it may end up in palate-pleasing products like doughnuts and potato chips.

Q: If there ever were an all-purpose tool out in the wild, it's an elephant's tusks. Can you identify some of its many uses?

A: Tusks are teeth, specialized rootless incisors embedded in a cranial socket with a hard outer husk protecting the inner soft pulp and nerves, says Dale Peterson in his book "Elephant Reflections." As defensive weapons, they're effective against predators; as aggressive weapons, they "have proven indispensable in the fierce competition among elephant males for access to fertile females." This "tool" can also be used for digging up underground water and edible tubers, as chisels to pry bark away from a tree, as crowbars to snap off branches or manipulate large objects. Interestingly, they're also electrical nonconductors, making them helpful in breaking down an electric fence.

Like humans with a handedness preference, most elephants favor one tusk over the other. And "since tusks continuously grow (and show growth rings, like trees) they can also (again like trees) grow over and around damage."

The record weight for a male African elephant tusk was "more than 102 kilograms (about 225 pounds), a single tooth heavier than most men, measuring some 3.26 meters (10.7 feet) long."

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions