Thomas Thundat, a man you'll meet in this week's magazine, has an unusual job title. He's a surface physicist, which means not that he has failed to probe deeply in his experiments but just the opposite. He brings a passionate scrutiny to the forces at work when one molecule comes into contact with another--when a gas seeps onto a sheet of silicon, for instance, or when a pair of large biological molecules collide and grapple. What Thundat sees in such collisions is more than academic. It has produced a new generation of microscopic sensors, based on tiny levers, that could put us far more in touch with the world we live in and even the biological environment inside our bodies. And Thundat is not alone in his explorations into the realm of the sensors. He's one of several scientists in a hot field we profile this week in the debut of a monthly feature called Innovators, a special section in which we'll be bringing you sneak previews from the front lines of creativity.
Christopher John Farley, who is editing Innovators, aims to find the boldest new thinkers in areas ranging from architecture to humor to the environment. At the same time, we hope to bring you a better understanding of the nature of creativity itself. "The process by which people come up with new ideas has always seemed both supernatural and seductive," says Farley, pointing out that the Greeks embodied inspiration in the form of the nine Muses--beings that were both beautiful and otherworldly.
In the real world, where scientists and tinkerers toil, the process often involves bringing together teams of experts from different disciplines--like chemists and engineers, biologists and computer scientists. Together they climb over the walls and fences of their individual fields. Our own creative team for this project has diversely talented members as well, including special-projects art director Marti Golon, who designed the intriguing foldout pages on which the Innovators are displayed; associate picture editor Dietmar Liz-Lepiorz, who obtained the portraits that capture on paper the erudition of these personalities; and Andrea Dorfman, who supervised reporting for the project.
The Innovators' joy in their work is plain to see. Says writer-reporter Unmesh Kher, who penned the profile of physicist Thundat: "A part of his charm derives from the obvious fact that he isn't so much working in his laboratories as he is having fun. He perks up with boyish glee whenever he finds some reflection of his technology in nature--in the cantilever-like tactile sensilla of ants, for instance, or the clusters of sensory hairs in the human inner ear." We believe that when you read about the Innovators this week and in the months ahead, you'll share in a taste of that same joy of discovery.
Stephen Koepp, Deputy Managing Editor