Ironically, one of the newly dubbed 2016 MacArthur fellow's most famous forays into the world of community science comes out of a field that sounds pretty inaccessible to most folks.
“Microfluidics in itself is a jargony kind of word,” Prakash says. The field brings together everything from physics to nanotechnology and chemistry in the hope of harnessing the power of small amounts of fluids. And jargony though it may be, he says, "fluidics is important.” From your car engine to your sprinklers, he points out, fluids are everywhere, and borrowing from nature’s command of fluids could allow him to create technologies that once sounded impossible.
The challenge, he says, is making anything approaching the complexity that exists inside, say, a single capillary in your body. “How is it possible that this complex plumbing inside of us works?” he asks. The answer, he says, is that it’s nearly autonomous — it can pretty much control itself. One of his goals is to make machines that are as precise as the smallest little devices in nature, and self-sufficient to boot.
We may not be there yet, but Prakash is well on his way. Along with his students, he developed a new class of computer — one that works by manipulating physical matter. It uses droplets of water that have been infused with tiny magnetic particles instead of bits. The presence of water acts like a “1,” the absence as a “0.” The computer even has an operating clock that makes its delicate operations start and stop in perfect synchronization. He hopes that one day, the new kind of clock could be used as a miniature lab, providing control over chemicals to make complex tests possible without test tubes.
When the fluidic computer was announced in 2015, Prakash didn’t keep it to himself. In fact, he made his methods available online for anyone to use. And when he invented Foldscope, a microscope made primarily out of paper that costs less than $1 to produce, he went a step further than just sharing the technology: His team also distributed 50,000 Foldscopes in 135 countries. Today, users of Foldscope contribute their findings to an online community — using the device in ways Prakash never anticipated. For example, one user figured out how to use the scope to detect counterfeit currency. Another uses the microscope to identify fake medicines.
For Prakash, that’s the entire point. “The ownership of science is not driven by us,” he says. “Community members care about engaging other people in science as much as we do.” To draw in as many community members as possible, he keeps costs a top consideration. “I grew up in India, so it matters a lot to me,” he explains. “The goal is not to just demonstrate that something is possible, but also to demonstrate that with minimal resources, it can be available to the broadest group of people.”
In order to achieve that, he tries to think of scale from Day One — and keep his eye on his wider goal of making science accessible. “There are 2 billion kids in the world, and 1 billion of them live under poverty,” he says. “How are they supposed to be curious? How are they supposed to engage in the most challenging problems that they face?”
Inside everyone, says Prakash, is “a little scientist” just waiting to wake up. “I love science so much,” he says. “I don’t understand why not everybody. Whenever I have something, I want to share it and let other people take ideas in different directions.”
That passion — the thing that won him that MacArthur grant in the first place — is what keeps him returning to the lab each day, whether he’s working on a concept that would make most people scratch their heads or looking at the world through his $1 microscope. “That sense of wonder is a strange thing,” he says, his voice brimming over with enthusiasm. “It’s not so hard to make new discoveries.”