People think mathematicians are brilliant because they talk about things like C* algebras or B-splines or A-modules or D-branes or … really any combination of unexplained letter with abstract noun. (Extra points if the letter is Greek!)
But when I think of really genius ideas, I think of things like:
- stairs. If stairs don’t exist, who is going to think “I need to invent stairs”?
- alcoholic beverages. We trivialise that somebody must have just drank some rancid stuff and thought it was good.
But no, people had invented sophisticated methods of getting particular tastes long before modern chemistry. When natural philosophers were still talking about phlogiston, Bordeaux already had fine wine down to a science.
- buckets, bowls, pots
- handles on mugs
- screws, bolts, nuts
- ball bearings!
- sponges with a scratchy pad … and how do they make those scratchy pads anyway?
- mitred joins, moulding, wainscoting
- sewing. I guess you notice pretty quickly when you sew stuff that many small stitches are super powerful, even with a thin thread. But who’s going to never have thought of the concept of a needle and thread before and suddenly think of it?
- weaving. Warp, weft … have you seen these old tapestry machines? They’re the predecessor of the modern computer.
- the invention of a chair. Again, suppose no chairs exist. Who is going to think of one and how?
Let me go a little deeper into several of the brilliant things about modern toilets.
- First of all there are the two hinged things, which are stacked in the right order. First one being — not only so your butt doesn’t touch the bowl (because they could just make a bowl with a flat ring on top of it, not make it detachable)—but so anyone who pees from a height doesn’t have to splash onto where everyone sits.
Second hinge controls the cover—which is a great idea because not only will stuff not fall into the toilet, but residual smells will be kept in. Let’s say your toilet is clogged, for instance. Then keeping the cover down is the best thing you can do for your comfort. By the way: without looking at your toilet, try to draw a diagram for how a series of hinges could control two separate toilet covers, and be bolted into the bowl.
- But the true genius is putting water in a bowl. Not only does it give you a way to evacuate the crap, but it reduces the smell.
Smells, of course, are volatile particulate matter that are flung off into the air from your poop, and reach your nose. (Which means that every time you smell poop, poop is getting on your towel, toothbrush, …. I don’t understand why people put showers, toothbrushes, and baths in the same room as where they poop — I mean it’s convenient for plumbing, but I would rather have my poop be as far away from my toothbrush as possible. Well, until I can design and live in my dream house, I have one of those cheapo toothbrush covers.)
So how can we cover up an entire piece of poop — it could have lots of shapes, we don’t want to have to touch it, we want to cover all of it with no errors, and we want to compress the poop particles so that they don’t fly off the turd. WATER. Yes. Next time you go in a pit toilet or port-o-let at a concert or camping, hyperventilate before you go in, cover your nose, and wish that they had poured gallons of water into the bank before everyone pooped in it.
That’s leaving aside the efficient manufacture of commodes and the sewage system, which I’m sure are both marvels of their own. You think about something like New York City, it’s a human habitation of 6 million people, each taking maybe 5-10 dumps per week (well, in good times). That’s 30–60 million pieces of crap every week that nobody wants to see or smell ever again.
Imagine you just dug a hole in the side of a hill, Hobbit-style, in a natural clearing. Suppose, too, that you’re close enough to a lake or stream that you can get water to your house easily. (Or it rains enough and you bought some huge rainbarrels.) Then what the crap are you planning to do with all of the crap you generate?! That’s a conundrum for ya.