Between them, the Libertine100 – our community of thinkers, makers and mavericks – have made some impressive discoveries in fields as wide-ranging as astrophysics, medicine, agriculture, design and architecture. Take Ambika Bumb, the biomedical engineer who’s using tiny diamonds for a new medical imaging technique that’s pioneering earlier detection of cancerous cells. Or Anais Rassat, the cosmologist who’s attempting to map the dark universe, which makes up 95% of the cosmos – and is invisible to the naked eye.
But in turning the lens on emerging wonders and marvels, we’ve spent time thinking about the discovery process itself, and are reminded that innovation is impossible without building on what’s come before.
If the Long Now foundation has taught us anything, it’s that we should be wary of instant gratification and the distraction of novelty in and of itself. As a means to discovery it often falls flat, teaching us to consume and expend rather than burrow beneath the surface where all the gold lies. The paradox of digital culture is that while the internet provides a plethora of unhealthy distractions which work against thoughtful reflection, it has also made the past (and the future) more accessible than ever. For those willing to take the time to step back and look, it’s easier to make conceptual links between ideas and events separated by decades if not centuries. These are prey to the same cognitive biases, of course, but they provide an interesting framework for radical progress.
Among Libertine100 members looking to the past, Lisa Ma is exploring whether the luddite movement – a term that’s often used pejoratively – can teach us anything new. Kathryn Hunt is looking into cancer’s ancient past to see whether the history of a supposedly ‘modern’ disease can help to unlock a cure. And Lucy Gilliam is retracing old maritime trade routes on a smaller, more human scale; travelling the world by sea and bringing back chocolate, rum and spices from sustainable sources.
Several ideas are looking to bridge the industrial and natural worlds. Melissa Sterry is designing cities based on nature’s blueprints; Olivia Southey wants to bring rainforests to Britain. Lumberjack Alana Husby is rescuing ancient timber from the waters of Panama and in doing so is providing the construction industry with a high quality sustainable source of materials. Elvira Museri organises eco-friendly, authentic holidays that preserve Argentinian culture. Daniella Martin wants us to eat bugs for a greener future. And last but not least, Chido Govera is encouraging grassroots change by teaching new methods of mushroom farming, a complex highly scientific endeavour which has empowered over 1,000 women to be self-sustaining.
As Anais Rassat reminds us, discovery is often about taking the long view – which means that while we might not reap immediate rewards from space telescopes and bionic cities, future generations might. Uncovering knowledge from the past – as well as from far-out, futuristic ideas that seek to advance human civilisation – can benefit all of us.