Tuesday, November 9, 2010

On Inventing

Mark Poncy’s Blog
On Inventing

As an “inventor”, I am frequently asked, “what invention has profited you the most?” Interestingly, the answer lies in failure – an unfortunate consequence of most endeavors, though they are invariably the ones from which we learn the most.

I had designed an original structure for a catamenial tampon for menstrual use (which matured into U.S. Patent number 3,999,549), whereby the benefits of a soft spongy foam material, used as an interface (arranged as an outer coating), were combined with the superior storage capacity of a condensed long-fiber inner core (i.e., compressed cotton), to yield a tampon that remained comfortable, resilient and reliable for considerably longer than was previously possible with conventional designs. The year was 1975; I had just returned from a visit to the Personal Products Company, a division of Johnson and Johnson, who expressed great interest in our work; and we began our preparations to hand-manufacture a few thousand of our “silver bullets” for panel tests that J&J was to run.

I already knew what the panel test would show, as we had convinced several of our friends to try them out, and virtually every user became an enthusiastic devotee – it was getting difficult to keep everyone in supply. We hadn’t spent the money yet, but it was looking good – very good – and it would take a completely off-the-wall unforeseen catastrophe to keep us from scoring a huge win (the annual US tampon market at the time was in excess of 3-1/2 billion units, and growing).
An unforeseen catastrophe like toxic shock syndrome.

Just prior to our meeting with J&J, the Proctor and Gamble Company came out with a pretty unique “beanbag” product that they compressed into a tampon delivery cartridge, and the product was hot – while we tested ours against it, and had come out winning every contest – their product did outperform the rest of the field, with the result that women were leaving them in place longer than usual – leading to a highly dangerous syndrome known as “toxic shock.” (Technically, this was because the longer wearing time encouraged the growth of anaerobes - normally held in check by the competition of aerobes and their vulnerability to oxygen - which could incite the emergence of TSS.)

If women felt comfortable leaving the P&G product (it was called “Rely”) in longer, and that tampon was highly implicated as the causative agent in several toxic shock cases, what would happen if we were to release our device into the field? We had beaten the pants off Rely in in-vivo testing – surely we’d be inviting disaster, hoisted on our own petard of having designed the ultimate in structure-function efficiency.

So, I picked up the telephone, spoke with the Personal Products Company head of Marketing, and went home, had a glass of champagne, and went to bed.

But when I awakened the next morning, I realized I’d just learned a life lesson, one that now, forty-five years later, still ranks right up there as one of the big ones.
Don’t spend it ‘til you get it. And always look out for the unforeseen – you can usually count on it happening.

(Silver lining: if it weren’t for the unforeseen, would we really want to get out of bed in the morning?)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Another excerpt from Revelation: The Epiphany of Cassandra Philips

Mark Poncy’s Blog
Another excerpt from Revelation: The Epiphany of Cassandra Philips

Each chapter of this novel begins with a consideration of a sensory organ within the developing embryo (see prior posts) Here’s the one on the apparatus of hearing:

Within the temporal region of the developing animal’s head, construction continues on structures that would funnel yet another form of energy from the environment into the organism, appraising it of information that will increase its awareness, and therefore the odds of its survival. Potentially threatening movement through the surrounding world would always involve some mechanical disruption, creating energy that is transmitted in the form of sound waves. The hearing apparatus would be meticulously fashioned to capture this flow of energy, warning of approach hidden under the cover of night, or otherwise camouflaged from visual detection.

In parallel with the bilateral placement of its eyes, the twinned ears, located on either side of the head, will receive acoustic information at times and strengths slightly variant with respect to one another, enabling the auditory cortex of the brain to calculate the direction from which the sound emanates. With sonic energy traveling at the speed of over one thousand feet each second, this difference, while less than a millisecond, is well within the discriminating powers of this finely-tuned system.

Because of the tendency of sound to rapidly decay during its propagation through the atmosphere, a specialized apparatus providing amplification of acoustic energy is forming within the middle ear. Three delicate bones arranged uniquely will offer mechanical leverage to the most minute stimulus, bringing the footfall of the padded paw into the realm of detection. At the same time, a powerful muscle begins to invest the delicate structure, one that will reflexively activate upon the arrival of loud and potentially damaging sound, immobilizing the apparatus, keeping it from shattering under its own resonance. Thus will the organism react to an enormous range of sonic energy, from the click of the turning key to the assaulting power of the cannon’s roar.

Deep within the structure of the ear, the snail shell-like cochlea is forming, a remarkable fluid-filled chamber lined with fine cilia, tiny hairs whose roots impinge upon the delicate curling branch of the auditory nerve. Tapering to microscopic thinness along its concentrically-wrapped length, the cilia vibrate in ratio to the pitch of the conducting sound, betraying its nature, from the threatening howl of the stalking wolf to the plaintive mourn of the maestro’s cello. Once again, it will all happen according to plan, a manifestation of instructions dictated by the linear order of chemicals splayed within the invisible nucleus of each invisible cell.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Thought for the Day by Mark Poncy

In my novel, “Revelation”, we follow the embryo (later identified as the heroine) as she develops in utero through a series of Chapter introductions. Here is the presentation on the sense of smell:

Yet another means of detecting the external environment is developing within the tiny creature; once again the organ designed to sense the outside world will occupy a conspicuous position atop the head, where it may conduct its surveillance unfettered by the accoutrements of living, relaying information quickly to the proximate brain. Ingeniously, the sampling will occur with each respiration, as thousands of olfactory cells begin to invest the lining of what may already be identified as tiny nasal passages.

As the physical universe proceeds to disorganization in conformance with the laws of thermodynamics, its organic inhabitants share a similar fate. The preservation of life is a constant struggle against the iron will of the environment, the propensity of nature to reclaim that which the individual has so energetically taken onto its own. It is a struggle in which nature is always the victor – in her infinite wisdom she processes the detritus of death into the materials of future life.

In consequence of this continual dis-integration, a molecular potpourri of airborne debris is carried across the landscape by the eccentricities of wind and the regularity of thermal gradients. Like crumbs spilled from the cookie jar, they signal the presence of all living things, a presence now detected by an olfactory system so sensitive that just one such molecule out of millions of nondescript fellow travelers will betray its existence. From the terrifying stench of the predator to the comforting wisp of the nursing mother, the aromatic profile of the world is brought under scrutiny some thousand times hourly as the organism recycles its internal atmosphere.

This airborne detection system is so rife with possibilities for communication that entire spectra of species have developed methods of spewing molecular traces to signal specific information. This incoming data will be processed and interpreted by the oldest part of the brain, where an ancient repository of olfactory meaning resides. From the urgent pheromone of fertility to the lingering stagnation of impending death, both welcoming and warning are extended across the landscape, breaching the distances of time and space.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Short Characterization from My Novel "Revelation"

For all of you scientists out there whose work is vetted by clueless administrators, below is a short characterization with which you’ll unfortunately be familiar. It’s taken from my just-released novel, “Revelation”: enjoy!

The telephone beside Steven Helmsley’s obscured right ear kept ringing until the bureaucrat was awakened out of a profoundly satisfying dream. He had taken to the ritual of the late afternoon nap, perfecting all the accoutrements of deception lest anyone discover his true enterprise, that of escaping the horridly boring insignificance of his daily workday existence. He was on his way to mastering the art of channeling, directing his unconscious awareness into a Walter Mitty dreamland. Unlike the predictable monotony of his workplace, little thrills and surprises often peppered these directed flights, taking him to the levels of scientific accomplishment that had so successfully eluded his conscious pursuits.
He stuck it out because he needed the income, and the pension they had offered in exchange for his freedom was just two years from vesting. Working for the government had robbed him of the opportunities and rewards of outside industry, or so he believed, and he was not about to forego the comforts of this costly security blanket, no matter how much crap he was catching from them. In reality, he had been too afraid to chance it on his own, which was more than likely fortuitous. Steven Helmsley lacked the imagination to ever contribute to the body of significant research, and so he made his living overseeing its practice under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health - another bit of oxymoronic logic in the unique operational construct of the United States government.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Revelation: The Epiphany of Cassandra Philips

Editorial Reviews 

Revelation: The Epiphany of Cassandra Philips

Product Description

"Revelation is tightly plotted, with twists and page-turners. The characters are unforgettable and the writing is top-notch. Poncy's story is a modern thriller, the likes of which rivals Michael Crichton at his best. The endgame of the novel will keep you guessing...you won't be disappointed as you finish the last, entertaining page."

Kate Burgauer, Crystal Literary

"Revelation is transformative...profound."

Donna Tiernan Mahoney-Lynch, Theologian

Cassandra Philips, a promising young evolutionary biologist, has developed a unique method of translating the genetic code that surpasses conventional methods in speed and accuracy. She applies her technique to demonstrate the legacy of our evolutionary past as contained within our genome, but what she discovers has profound implications for our future.

The path Cassandra must travel is a treacherous one. There are the roadblocks set by the intimidating Senator Franklin Morgan, a creationist whose fundamentalist thinking is threatened by her work. The emotional conflicts that arise when she falls in love with the senator's son, Michael complicate matters even further. Cassandra finds herself confronting the profound issues that define mankind's ultimate enigma--why we are here and what is to become of us--as the terrifyingly enlightenment of her work reveals far more than she ever imagined.
Revelation: The Epiphany of Cassandra Philips turns the lens of science fiction/fantasy upon the dark philosophical issues that have haunted mankind since the birth of imagination.

About the Author

From original research into the workings of the brain to the development of unique medical devices, Mark Philip Poncy has been a pioneer in the world of scientific innovation for four decades. He lives with his wife, Marnie, in North Palm Beach, Florida and in the Smoky Mountains of northern Georgia.