An imaginative career can be variously exhilarating, rewarding, and arduous, but you don’t have to tell that to Dr. Stephen Kurtin, the subject of an August 3, 2009, New York Times profile by John Markoff. “As a promising Caltech graduate student in applied physics,” the article begins, “Stephen Kurtin could have taken a job offer from Intel at the dawn of the microelectronics era 40 years ago.” Instead, Kurtin took the path of most resistance, that of the solo inventor. His imagination—his capacity to conceive of what is not—has been essential to his shining success (he holds more than 30 patents in areas as diverse as word processing and surround sound), but it has also driven him to toil for the last 20 years on a question most others haven’t dared to touch: how can we do better than bifocals, trifocals, and progressive lenses in treating presbyopia? (Presbyopia diminishes the ability to focus on close objects and affects a third of the world’s population, mainly people over 40.)
Kurtin’s odyssey of trial and error reminds us that in science and commerce, imagination is only the beginning of a lengthy process. But if you’re confident about your initial conception, you hang in there. Kurtin figured out at long last how to construct commercially viable glasses with a mechanically adjustable focus. TruFocals, as they’re called, go on sale in the U.S. this month. Read the article for technical details. Kurtin’s story is instructive because it offers us a panoramic view of imagination—the boldness it requires (adjustable focus has been an unattainable goal for 140 years) and the hardship it sometimes brings (Kurtin has invested millions of his own dollars in the product), as well as its potential to lead to the improvement of countless human lives.
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