Sometimes the best discoveries are the ones you aren't looking for.
There's a physicist in Washington today. That's not terribly uncommon, but Steve Gass isn't here to warn us of global warning, beg for research dollars, lobby for/against nuclear power, or many of the other common reasons scientists talk to politicians. He's here to save the fingers of countless shop teachers and wood workers with his invention called the SawStop. Words can't do it justice, so you'll have to check out the video above to see what the Sawstop does.
We featured Steve on Physics Central years ago because we thought it was cool that he would come up with something so useful, which really had nothing to do with his research. Even though it wasn't a physics project, Gass used the problem solving skills and lab experience he gained by studying physics to come up with something so impressive that Consumer Product Safety Commission is advocating that it be included as standard feature on all table saws. They estimate that it will prevent more than 4,000 serious injuries and severed body parts every year.
In case you have doubts about how well it works on anything other than a hot dog, the end of this video shows Steve testing it with his own finger.
Sawstop is only one of countless spinoffs that come out of physics labs. By spinoff, I mean any useful innovation developed by physicists, while not being the focus of a physics project. Here are a few more that come to mind . . .
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a devastating disease that hampers breathing and leads to hundreds of thousands of deaths each year, as suffers literally drown in their own lung mucus. Acoustical physicist Sandy Hawkins applied the physics of sound to develop a simple and elegant way to help people with COPD breath a little easier. The Lung Flute isn't a musical instrument at all - the tone it emits is so low it hardly counts as a note - it's a prescription-only medical device.
Blowing on the Lung flute creates pulses in your airway at a frequency that's just right to shake mucus loose from the hair-like cilia in your lungs, so that you can cough it up. Check out this video from an article about the device by Corey Bins in Popular Science.
World Wide Web
It's hard for me to even wrap my head around what it means to invent the World Wide Web, but invented it was - by Tim Berners-Lee of CERN. Nowadays, CERN is better known as the home of the Large Hadron Collider, which is hot on the trail of the grandest questions in physics. And while many of us want to know why the universe exists in the form we see all around us, the answers to such questions probably won't change your life much.
The Web, on the other hand, changed everything. I'd be willing to bet Berners-Lee wasn't dreaming of YouTube, Facebook, and LOL Cats when he was developing a new system to help scientists share data. The result was beyond the wildest imagination of just about everyone alive at the time.
Berners-Lee was knighted for his accomplishment. Maybe we should cut to the chase and make him a saint.
Medical X-Rays, Microwave Ovens, MRI machines . . .
Yep, these too were fortunate accidents derived from physics research in pursuit of entirely different things. The list goes on an on. But there's only so much time in the day.