A Conversation with Dr David Fine
By Ilan Preskovsky
Dr David Fine recently made local headlines for donating some $3 million (roughly R50 million) to the University of Witwatersrand to establish the Angela and David Fine Chair in Innovation. It’s an astonishing amount of money, of course, (and a truly sobering way to express the current state of our currency), but after spending thirty minutes on a Zoom call with him, I can safely say that the real story here is less about the millions of rands Dr Fine so generously donated, and more about what, exactly, brought him to the decision to donate so much money towards this particular cause in the first place.
Dr Fine lives in Boston, Massachusetts, as he has since 1969, but he was born and raised in Johannesburg and is, as you may perhaps have guessed, an alumnus of Wits. He ultimately landed up in Boston after accepting a post at one of the United States’ most prestigious academic institutions, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT, to its friends), back in’69, but his journey to that point was rather less conventional than one might expect.
For a start, he was a self-proclaimed “bad student” who failed grade 1 at King Edward School and who, again in his own self-deprecating words, “became an average student only in form 3 [grade 10]”. It was around then, however, that he found his academic passion: “I became mesmerised by science,” and went on to study chemistry, physics, mathematics, and applied maths at Wits, completing a four-year BSc degree with honours.
Following this, he took up a position at African Explosives, based in Modderfontein, but was soon offered a scholarship to Leeds University in the UK, whereupon he did a PHD in the chemistry of explosives. Or, as he puts it, “I had a ball just blowing things up!” After receiving his PHD, he moved once again, this time for a job in Canada, but his stay there would be cut short by his instructor firing him after six months for, as he once again unashamedly puts it, “incompetence and stupidity”, but Dr Fine’s claim that this was just another way of saying “for disagreeing with me” is more than borne out by procuring a new job: this time a faculty appointment at MIT in the chemical engineering department.
And this was only the very beginning of a career defined by both innovation and a relentless unwillingness to bow to the pressures of either authority or convention.
Chance, discovery, innovation
If his landing up as a member of faculty at one of the most prestigious universities on the planet may have seemed unlikely to the six-year-old KES student who failed grade 1, what came next was, if anything, even more extraordinary.
At this point, Dr Fine stops to point out, indeed strenuously insist, that the inventions that followed were, pretty much always, the results of chance. Both Torah Judaism and psychology may perhaps call “chance” by other names, but the point definitely stands: as he goes on to outline his career as an inventor, the role of chance becomes impossible to deny. “Everything I invented, I invented by chance. I read about other people and the way they invent, and everything happens by chance. The only thing you’re doing is putting things together.”
Also impossible to deny, though, is the gigantic role that another form of the word “chance” also plays in all of this: “chance” as in “take a chance”. But more on that in a bit.
Dr Fine’s stay at MIT was, by all accounts, tremendously productive, but the realities of being a family man in need of more money meant that after those few years he left the university for a significant salary increase in a private research and development company. So much of what would come next, though, grew out of his work with chemical explosives at MIT, as well as the experiences that led him there. And, once again, pure chance.
In particular, the breakthrough that would lead to so many other breakthroughs came about because, while at MIT, he overheard a conversation during lunch one day on the chemical causes of cancer. “I was listening to someone else talking about the chemical causes of cancer and he brought up something called Nitrosamines. I asked him what that was and he drew me a formula of these organic chemical compounds. I noticed that each molecule has a nitric oxide compound (NO) and in my work with explosives, I’d been studying how [the NO compound] was formed in flames, and I had developed a way to measure it. Wait a minute, I realised, these Nitrosamines will fall apart at the NO bond, and I’ll measure it in its gaseous state!”
What this meant, in short, is that by working with the chemistry of explosives, Dr Fine had stumbled upon a way to develop a method that would, fairly easily, measure how much of these cancer-causing compounds occur in various food stuffs, most notably things like alcohol and canned meat.
This life-saving, world-changing discovery was clearly the result of a series of fortuitous events but it was also about a willingness not to kowtow to naysayers or even the scientific establishment.
“Once we developed the Nitrosamine machine, so we could actually detect it,” Dr Fine explains, “the World Health Organisation organised a round robin study where they sent various cans of meat [to researchers] around the world, each spiked with different levels of Nitrosamine, and asked them to analyse it. We were new to the field and I wasn’t an analytical chemist, but canned meat is made up of fat, water, oil, all sorts of things, making it very difficult to extract, so what we did was add mineral oil that was used for medicinal purposes. That oil extracted the Nitrosamine and we distilled it out of the oil for analysis.
“Immediately after we had done that, we got a call from WHO and they were very upset. No one else could do analyse it but we got it exactly right. Our results were perfect. We discovered which of the cans had the Nitrosamine and the exact quantities. They didn’t believe it until they came and saw it and did it themselves. In the US, the National Institute of Health had cancelled our contract saying we were completely incompetent for even thinking of using oil. It was not approved and no one had done that before. How could you distil [Nitrosamines] out of oil into vapour and then freeze and analyse them? It’s crazy! And I said, yes, it’s crazy, it’s nutty, it’s stupid, but we did the analysis, and you couldn’t.”
Listening to Dr Fine talk about his various innovations and inventions – he has a whopping 106 patents issued in the US – it’s clear that these sorts of “chance discoveries” have happened constantly, often with one invention leading into another into another, and very often with strong opposition from the establishment.
In a neat, circular bit of happenstance, for example, this device that he came up with to measure Nitrosamines was based on his work with the nitro compounds in explosives, but the device proved to be so effective at measuring those Nitrosamines that he realised he could adapt it back into something that can just as effectively detect explosives. Once again, mirroring the WHO study almost exactly, Dr Fine and his team showed what they were working on to someone in the US government who saw it working, saw them detecting plastic explosives that were assumed to be undetectable at that time, and then went away and wrote up a report slandering Dr Fine anyway, because, as Dr fine recounts, “They said it was impossible – that it was actually mathematically impossible – and therefore I couldn’t be believed. This ended up delaying the field in the US for years.”
These devices are now used to detect plastic explosives world-wide, with Israel, as it so happens, being one of its earliest adopters, using it extensively on its boarders with Gaza, Lebanon, and Jordan.
And so the question remains, if this sort of thing kept happening to the good doctor, why on earth shouldn’t the same be true of just about anyone? Or, more pointedly, as he says it, “Why can I innovate whereas scientists who are far smarter than I am, cannot?”
Is innovation innate or something that can be taught? Neither? Both. From Dr Fine’s point of view, the ability to innovate, to think creatively, comes from creating both an environment and an attitude in which innovation can be cultivated. He notes that this is certainly not relegated just to the hard sciences, but can apply to any field.
“It can be an artist, a businessman, a musician, a writer. Innovation is not just science, it’s seeing things differently. People are born with the innovation ability. A three-year-old plays in a sandbox and takes a piece of wood and pretends it’s a plane. They have an open mind. Somehow it gets crushed out of us.”
Part of the blame, he believes, is that educational institutions – be they primary, secondary, and even tertiary – have a bad habit of repressing rather than fostering this sort of creative thinking. He notes that this even includes PHD programmes. “For example, and this got me in trouble with some academics, when you start on a PHD programme they tell you to go study a particular field from top to bottom and then start your project. Well, [by doing that], you’ve just killed all the innovation. What you should do is read a little bit for a day and then go and think about it. Think of all the ways you might solve the problem and then once you’ve found the best way, then you can go read the literature.”
This is where Dr Fine’s decision to donate $3 million dollars to Wits comes in. Wishing to counteract the tendencies of educational institutions to suppress creativity, he decided that he wanted to create a department in a university purely dedicated to the art and science of innovation. He considered American universities and his old alma mater in the UK, Leeds University, for such a project, but he ultimately decided to go with the place where his university education begin: Wits.
In part this was for purely practical reasons, but also because he believes that South Africa, and Africa in general, would benefit most from an increased focus on innovation. “Three million dollars at Wits pays for an awful lot of activity. It gets you a professor, a staff, PHD students, a whole department. In the US or UK, $3 million just isn’t that much. Wits is also especially good because innovation is helped by having many cultures around it [and a multicultural South African university offers that in spades]. And Africa needs that kind of innovation.”
“All these graduates graduating from these universities… I want them to have a measure that it’s not about how many papers you publish but of how many jobs you create. I have 106 registered patents in the US and have generated well over a billion dollars [through my inventions]. Universities worldwide measure your success by how many papers you put out, but that’s meaningless. The question [that drives this Chair in Innovation] is what steps did you take to create new inventions, new companies, new products?”
Beyond just this particular department at this particular university, Dr Fine offers some salient points on fostering innovation, in general, and in schools and universities, in particular.
“I’ve been puzzled about what makes people innovate. Why do I do it and other people not? I’ve seen people who are far brighter than me and they know so much about a subject that they can’t see the trees for the forest. It’s not that they were born differently. It’s when an opportunity comes to grab it, don’t be afraid of failure. I know many excellent scientists who just couldn’t innovate because they’re afraid of failing. Failure is a big part of innovation. When you fail, enjoy the failure and learn from it. You’ll be much better off [than if you had not failed].”
In closing, I asked Dr Fine what he would tell kids and young adults to get them to resist this “grinding down” of their innate ability to innovate. His answer, as you may well expect, is the perfect summary of everything he said before: “Your own ideas are usually damn good. Trust them. Yes, make sure your idea’s right before making them public. An innovator can’t make a mistake in public. But if you are sure of your facts and you’ve checked it out with parents or friends and it really works then, hey, you’ve done something, you’re good, you don’t have to be concerned. When people told me I was incompetent or stupid, I knew I had a good idea. ‘Are you crazy! Are you nuts? That will never work!’ Take that as a compliment.” Dr Fine did just that, and he and the world are all the better for it.