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Thank A Library For Your Flat Screen TV, Digital Memory

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

By Michael Brooks, Learning 2030 Summit Curator

Image © Stanford Ovshinsky/ Energy Conversion Devices

It’s amazing what a library can do. That flat screen TV you love so much? Your laptop’s memory card? The solar panels that are helping us fight climate change? All down to a library.

The library in question was in Akron, Ohio, in the United States. The avid reader was the son of Eastern European immigrants called Stanford Ovshinsky, who became one of the greatest inventors of the last century. A mediocre student in school, his teachers didn’t understand him in the same way his local librarian did. That librarian allowed Ovshinsky to take out books written for adults. School was not where he did his learning, Ovshinsky once said: it was a library that enabled him to learn.

Learning to love, loving to learn

I come at this story with mixed feelings. I’ve just been in Ontario, running a summit on the future of education. Ovshinsky’s story is still common today. Around half of Canada’s students find school a turn-off; it doesn’t seem to engage their minds as much as we’d like. While we work out how to improve that situation, perhaps, as with Ovshinsky, learning to love a library could help.

Ovshinsky's armfuls of borrowed books led him to found an entirely new field of science: the study of “amorphous” materials. Ovshinsky discovered that you can change the atomic structure of these materials by hitting them with a jolt of electricity. He used this phenomenon to create new ways of storing data - ways that are now licensed by firms such as Intel.

Ovshinsky’s understanding of amorphous materials also led him to create a new kind of electronic switch that could be used to make flat screens. Astonishingly, that was in 1970. Nobody took him seriously at the time, but an article in the New York Times said the invention could lead to a TV that could be hung on the wall like a picture. It’s taken a while, but we’re finally there - thanks to that librarian’s input all those decades ago.

Image © WGSI/Carrie Warner

World-changing 'bad-students'

Having spent the first days of this month in Waterloo working with some of the world’s best educators, I’m confident that we can make schools as flexible as that librarian. Ovshinsky is not the only great mind who found school difficult. Einstein was the same, as was multimillionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson. We now recognise that some people learn better when allowed to roam free and explore what interests them, much like when Ovshinsky was let loose in that library.

Ovshinsky’s biggest hope was that learning how to refine amorphous materials would lead to more efficient solar panels. He set up a company that is doing just that. The company ended up based in a former elementary school in a Detroit suburb. Which of the school’s rooms did he choose for his office? The library of course.



Michael Brooks was the curator for Equinox Summit: Learning 2030. His latest book is Free Radicals: The Secret Anarchy of Science.