In Praise of Inventiveness

Editor’s Notebook
All right, bring it on. Call me a nincompoop. Tell me where we went wrong and what we left out.I can take it.

In fact, I’d appreciate the input.

In this issue, we shine a spotlight on 40 of the history-making inventions, discoveries and innovations that have been produced by McGill professors, students and graduates over the years.

Anytime anybody puts together this kind of list in a magazine, they’re asking for trouble.

When Entertainment Weekly publishes its picks for “The 20 Scariest Movies of All Time” or when PC World announces its selections for “The 50 Most Important People on the Web,” you know there will be howls of outrage from determined fans of the close-but-no-cigar contenders that didn’t quite make the cut. And that’s part of the fun.

In our case, we don’t pretend to be in any sort of position to pronounce on the 40 most important discoveries made by McGill minds. Uh-uh. No way.

The list we present is intended only as a snapshot of what some of the University’s talented individuals have achieved. We think it’s an awfully impressive snapshot, but we fully acknowledge there are many worthy candidates not included in the article.

Originally, we had only intended to feature 25 innovations, but whittling the list down from the more than 100 possibilities we had assembled was just too darn hard. Heck, we could have come up with a long and impressive list that only dealt with important genes that have been identified by McGill researchers (it would include genes that play a large role in such illnesses as Lou Gehrig’s disease, tuberculosis and leprosy).

So the article kept stretching, from 25 to 30 and, finally, to the 40 we present here (and the 60 we’ll include in the online version of the piece).

Now it’s time for you to have your say. Do you think we should have added TV visionary Moses Znaimer, BA’63, whose Citytv and MuchMusic stations introduced a more informal, youth-oriented vibe to Canadian television? Or maybe W. Lincoln Hawkins, PhD’38, who helped make universal telephone service possible by co-inventing a chemical additive that prevented the plastic coating on telecommunications cables from deteriorating? Let us know your picks. After all, who says we have to stop at 40 (or 60)? We hope to keep expanding our list (if only online).

Another thing to keep in mind: We leaned heavily on time-tested innovations for this article, fully aware that new discoveries can take decades to make their trek from labs to Loblaws. In this issue’s Insights section, for instance, there are at least two recent discoveries mentioned—a promising new method for diagnosing malaria and an exciting new approach that might one day make cells “virus-proof”—that could conceivably have a huge impact in the years to come. If we did this article in another five or 10 years, chances are you would be reading a very different list of achievements.

On the subject of inventive minds who’ve made us proud, McGill News associate editor James Martin, MLIS’05, has done just that. As we were putting the finishing touches on this issue, we were thrilled to learn that the Canadian Council for the Advancement of Education has awarded James its Gold Medal for best writing in English. James earned the prize for his wonderfully engaging cover story on McGill astrophysicist Victoria Kaspi that appeared in our summer 2007 edition. Stories from university publications across Canada were eligible for the prize and James’s piece prevailed over some 30 entrants.

CCAE judges described his story as “literate, thoughtful, with touches of whimsy” and “cleverly constructed… contrasting the almost unimaginably abstract thinking Victoria Kaspi does in her academic life against the domestic whirlwind of her household.” If you haven’t read the article yet, do yourself a favour and check it out on our website.

And once you’ve done that, tell me why I’m a nincompoop and what we ought to add to our list of McGill ideas that made history.

DANIEL MCCABE

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