Do you drink your water from the tap? Do you buy bottled water? If you are in an area that has been subjected to hydro-fracking and resultant ground water contamination, then your water is shipped in by truck. More and more, the water we drink is suspect for contaminates (antibiotics, medications, hydro-frack chemicals, bleach, toxic amounts of fluoride, etc.). Projections indicate that clean, potable water will be in a shortfall in our lifetimes. Plentiful, control tested, unpolluted water, something the U.S. has taken for granted, is disappearing and third world conditions are creeping our way.
We must address the problem if governments intend to forestall what has happened in other countries: 50% of the hospital beds around the world are filled with individuals who have been sickened by water-born pathogens. Sadly, the numbers of those who die from drinking contaminated water in countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh are staggering: 1 in 5 kids die in Pakistan and 1 million kids and adults die yearly in Bangladesh. These shocking facts are quoted by Dean Kamen in the monumental, eye-opening documentary SlingShot.
The film directed by Paul Lazarus is in essence about the life and times of inventor extraordinaire Dean Kamen. The documentary comes to rest on one of Kamen’s pet projects, to deliver a machine which provides clean, potable water anywhere, especially to third world countries. Kamen has invented many devices which have benefited people. A few include a machine that provides home dialysis, a mobilized wheelchair, and a portable delivery device for insulin. Many other medical device innovations he spearheaded with his company DEKA, which he started with his brother Bart Kamen who was a medical doctor. Through video clips the filmmaker helps us understand the breadth of Kamen’s inventions, his life’s work and mission, his family and social connections, and the organization he created to get kids interested in science and robotics, FIRST. Lazarus includes Kamen’s narration about himself and comments from his parents and others to uncover the mind of this lover of machines who smashes all stereotypes of the “mad scientist”with his affability and good will.
The film is fascinating, accessible, and fun. We become engaged in the science of machines as we learn about this maverick genius most known for his Segway, which was supposed to be the bridge between walking and as ,he says, the inefficiency of a single driver hauling a 150 pound body in a 4,000 pound car. The media frenzy and build up around the Segway, after the unveiling made it appear like the invention was hyped up for no reason; it was a negative marketing fiasco according to Kamen. It is no coincidence that the media (heavily sponsored by car companies), undercut the power of what the Segway offered. However, it is an idea decades ahead of its time. When the population explodes sprawling growth in the cities, Kamen maintains that the Segway is the best hope to decrease the traffic congestion, pollution, and resource usage. Segway lanes replacing bike lanes in cities? Perhaps. Thus far, Segways are used for tours of stunning visual landscapes and seascapes like New York Harbor and Manhattan island.
Lazarus’ documentary retraces Kamen’s steps through his various inventions. It elucidates his love of scientific principles discovered by the 6 greatest scientific minds in 2,200 years of history; their portraits are hanging in the hallway of Kamen’s house to spur on his genius. The film explores how and why Kamen became a passionate inventor and engineer. Kamen’s enthusiastic and good-humored narration coupled with the visuals of his personal toys (helicopter and helicopter pad, jet plane and amazing house all of which hold his and others’ creative handiwork), fuel the purpose of inspiring a million kids and adults. They will surely find this off-beat and energetic film subject imminently personable and incredibly humble despite the brilliance of his endeavors.
Interspersed between clips of Kamen’s childhood past with snippets of commentary from his parents, his brother, and others, Lazarus forms the profound portrait of a man who constantly tries to use science to serve social and environmental justice and not the other way around. In Kamen’s clearly stated mission, we realize his compelling purpose: to make people’s lives better by confronting problems that have been labeled impossibilities.
This is a refreshing view that runs counter to the “corporate” scientist who is a “company man” and is controlled by the bottom line which places profits over the well being of people. Kamen is his own entrepreneur and is completely hands on with his inventions. He digs deep in the trenches and is not afraid to get his hands dirty while problem solving. Indeed, the more something appears to be haphazard and hopeless, the more Kamen enjoys finding his way to a solution. The irony is that he is not the average genius; he has dyslexia. So for him to understand how something works, he must read, read, and read until the pictures begin to form in his mind to coalesce into understanding. From this great difficulty, even greater inspiration has come; he credits his ability to think outside the box to his inability to find reading easy.
The title SlingShot relates not only to the name of his machine, but it is an appropriate “distillation” metaphor of Kamen’s world view in approaching mammoth problems with technology that is efficient, simple, and precise and with an economy of scale. He gives the example of being fascinated by the slingshot that David used to kill Goliath. Using this as a broader image Kamen, like a David, aims to solve (kill), unsolvable problems to better people’s lives. His main project is to destroy one of the world’s most egregious problems with his SlingShot. The SlingShot is a vapor compression distiller which he has engineered to provide the world with clean, potable water. The astounding beauty and utility of this machine is that it can take polluted, deadly water and make it pure, regardless of its contamination by fecal matter, toxic chemicals, metals, PCBs, or pathogenic organisms.
If you are incredulous, I don’t blame you. It is amazing to think a machine can transform toxic water that kills into a clean, potable drink that is most probably purer than what comes out of your tap. With video clips and Kamen’s voice over narration, Lazarus reveal the trials and errors it took to perfect the SlingShot, including the cultural hurdles in getting the machine to small villages in third world countries and the problems they encountered afterward. It is a vital imperative to see the hard work involved in the SlingShot’s evolution; it follows along the mantra that to implement an invention, it takes 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration. However, there is a pay off; the machine has been tested in trials, and companies like Coca-Cola have invested in Kamen’s SlingShot after they studied its efficacy and reliability. How and why Coca Cola became involved is a fascinating story as a part of the SlingShot’s evolution.
Some of the fun video clips Lazarus includes involve celebrities and Kamen’s appearances on TV. In one funny segment Kamen appears with the machine on The Colbert Report. There is even a video clip of former President Bill Clinton who gives testimony about how he was Kamen’s guinea pig years ago: Clinton watched Kamen pour putrid, contaminated water into the vapor compression distiller which he then drank after the distillation process was completed. Clinton is as lively as ever; the machine works. I want one!
SlingShot is a wonderful and enlightening documentary that restores one’s faith in entrepreneurship which involves bettering all of our lives and securing the future for those in third world countries who don’t even have clean water to drink. Kamen is poignant in wanting to get the SlingShot to these places because here is a solution to end human suffering and the death of children. This year alone, millions will die because there is little clean water to drink. Something we assume will be there for us forever, is something that is never there for many. Kamen is heartbroken about it. I am impressed by him, the SlingShot, and his life’s mission, as I am impressed by Lazarus’ clear, cogent and urgent film about this global problem of dwindling, pure water supplies. This is a film you should not miss. Conserving the water patch is the next big environmental thrust we must be attentive to and support in this age of changing climate.
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