Microbats, Broken Skulls, Rocket Girls & Prehistoric Beach Bears 

The Scientists among us: A photo essay

Wednesday, Oct 30 2002

A few times a year, something strange takes place at Pasadena's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The scientists open their doors to filmmakers in order to teach Hollywood how to make movies about space more realistic. On these occasions, it's tough to tell who's more starstruck: the scientists or the moviemakers.

Like many L.A. locals, I come from an entertainment family. The people I know are more likely to understand the intricacies of executive-producing than the basics of calculus. Still, I often think I would've been a good scientist. I was enthralled by the aesthetics of the equations, though I couldn't figure them out. I had a deliberate and studious nature, and prided myself on my ability to solve puzzles. But the math did me in, and I exchanged science for science fiction. Now, I have to admit, I get a certain thrill just being in a building labeled "NASA," and the thrill comes less from any realistic notion of what that means and much more from associations I have with the sci-fi movies I grew up on.

It seems we all start with the same dreams, whether we become armchair scientists or real ones. Once we get past wanting to be a pirate or a fireman, who hasn't contemplated building spaceships and robots? Who doesn't want to dig up dinosaurs or play with people's brains or control the highest-flying plane in the world?

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In most places these kinds of inclinations are killed quickly and gently, and people go quietly about the business of having normal lives. Here, however, in Los Angeles, things sometimes seem a bit different. Here, in a place built for the sole purpose of making the extraordinary into the everyday (at least, in pictures), there are people who have stuck to their first impulses. There are, as is to be expected in the entertainment capital of the world, those who grow up to make pictures about spaceships and fantastical things, and those who grow up to make the things themselves. Pictures not always included. These are the scientists, and there are more of them here than you think.

Modern Daedalus PAUL MacCREADY, inventor of the Gossamer Condor, the world's first human-powered aircraft, and founder and Chairman of the Board of Monrovia's AeroVironment, Inc., which creates human-powered and unmanned aerial vehicles, the first modern electric car and other efficient energy systems

"I personally think the most exciting period to live on Earth is from 1925, when I was born, until about 2025, when I probably won't be around. In 1971, to my surprise, I began AeroVironment. I thought it would be more fun to work for a big company, but as I looked around I couldn't find any big company that was interested in the sorts of things I was. The fact that I'm into different things is probably a symptom of my existence. I was interested in flying insects and then model airplanes as a youth. I was in Navy pilot training, and after World War II. I got seriously involved in sailplane flying and also flying power planes.

"AeroVironment is focused on doing more with less. Virtually everything we do deals with efficiency and doing the job with very little power, very little material and so on. We have a plane, the Helios, that flies two miles higher than any plane that's ever flown. It doesn't weigh very much and gets by on very little.

"[To come up with the Gossamer Condor] we learned from birds. For instance, birds soar over the forest, and vultures fly 10 or 15 miles an hour, never flapping their wings. It's an example of using the motions of the air -- up-currents and down-currents -- to stay up.

"It's all just a way of getting one's thinking straight. Before, I was thinking about airplanes and seaplanes and hydroplanes -- my reasoning was correct, it just didn't get me anyplace. But by going to the birds I came around to the right way of thinking."

Bat Man DR. YU-CHONG TAI, director of the Caltech Micromachining Laboratory, Caltech professor of electrical engineering and creator of the Microbat, the first radio-controlled, battery-powered flapping-wing Micro Aerial Vehicle

"Even a kid can envision that our future is full of robots. Robots on the ground, on water, in the air. And to be honest with you, the chance is 99.9 percent right that in the future we're going to have smarter, more efficient, really agile, powerful robots -- flying robots -- everywhere, to serve humans in a wonderful way. Much more advanced than what we have today. That's what we want with the Microbat project.

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