There was the marine pogo stick, designed for travellers to bounce smoothly across the waves, and the pair of steam-powered shoes that could heat water underfoot, allowing shipwreck victims to safely walk (or run) to dry land.
Color-changing baby clothes were envisioned for well-prepared parents, who could dip the outfit in chemicals to turn it pink or blue, depending on a newborn’s gender. On the far end of life, a machine was imagined that could turn a corpse’s water into silica. The body could then be used as a decorative funeral statue.
Yet all these inventions, what the British inventor David E.H. Jones jokingly described as “plausible schemes,” paled in comparison to Dr. Jones’s greatest work: inspiring a mass audience to think deeply about physics, chemistry, engineering and biology, disciplines that he lampooned — and contributed to — in more than four decades’ worth of satirical columns and articles in prestigious science journals.
Dr. Jones, who died July 19 at 79, at times described himself as a fraud, charlatan and “court jester in the palace of science.” But the inventions that he outlined in his columns, often written under the pen name Daedalus, were informed by a doctorate in organic chemistry and a life spent in joyful pursuit of scientific progress. (Daedalus was the ancient Greek craftsman who created the wings that Icarus used to fly too close to the sun.)
Beginning in 1964, he wrote weekly pieces for the London-based New Scientist magazine. He later contributed to the publication Nature, Britain’s Guardian newspaper, and to television programs in England and Germany before retiring in the early 2000s.
Dr. Jones at his home in Newcastle upon Tyne, England, in 2010, inspecting his micro-gravity “chemical garden.” The experiment was launched into space and returned to earth by NASA as part of a research project at Newcastle University. (Conor Lawless )
Dr. Jones “was really the only one doing this,” said Trevor Lipscombe, a physicist who edited Dr. Jones’s 2011 book, “The Aha! Moment,” and now directs the Catholic University of America Press. “There’s at least a generation of folks like me in Britain who grew up reading David’s Daedalus articles for New Scientist magazine.”
In a series of early 1990s articles that irked some religious readers, Dr. Jones proposed a method for weighing and quantifying the soul, allowing scientists to calculate its velocity and quantum-mechanical spin at the moment it leaves — or enters — a human body.
Such a method had many applications, he wrote, such as showing when a soul enters a fetus and thereby resolving the debate about the origins of personhood.
“If the soul turns out to enter the fetus quite late in pregnancy,” he wrote in 1993, “the religious arguments against contraception and early abortion will be neatly disproved.”
Although many of Dr. Jones’s Daedalus columns were simple flights of fancy, thought experiments designed to encourage readers to ponder the limits of science and stretch the laws of physics, he was credited with anticipating several major creations and discoveries, including noise-canceling devices and chemically powered lasers.
On a radio program, he suggested that Napoleon’s death — sometimes attributed to arsenic poisoning — may have resulted from a green, arsenic-based dye used in some 19th-century wallpapers. A subsequent article, co-written with Kenneth Ledingham in Nature, partly confirmed Dr. Jones’s suspicion, uncovering high arsenic levels in the French emperor’s wallpaper that, at the very least, may have caused him to become ill.
Yet Dr. Jones’s greatest triumph may have come in 1966, when he proposed the idea of a hollow molecule, “a flat sheet of carbon atoms bonded hexagonally rather like chicken wire.”
The column, like other Daedalus pieces, was a mix of hard science and unconstrained imagination, although this time his idea was borne out in nature. Three scientists produced just such a molecule in 1985, and were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for their efforts in 1996.
David Edward Hugh Jones was born in London on April 20, 1938. His father was an advertising copywriter, and his mother was a homemaker.
His brother, Peter, recalled that as a young boy, Dr. Jones was unusually drawn to tinkering: spending hours in the garden shed, mixing syrup and sulfuric acid to see what concoction would result, and building and launching two- and even three-stage cardboard rockets.
Dr. Jones studied chemistry at Imperial College London, where he received a bachelor’s degree and doctorate, and for many years worked as a science consultant and as a guest staff member at the chemistry department of Newcastle University.
He released two illustration-filled collections of his columns, “The Inventions of Daedalus” (1982) and “The Further Inventions of Daedalus” (1999).
A marriage to Jan Burgess ended in divorce in 1973.
His brother said Dr. Jones died of complications of prostate cancer at a hospice in Newcastle upon Tyne, and leaves no other immediate survivors.
A bicycle wheel figured in one of Dr. Jones’s most memorable creations, an alleged Perpetual Motion Machine that he designed in 1981 for a British science exhibition. The “scientific conjuring trick,” as Dr. Jones called it, appeared to defy the laws of physics, with a wheel that seemed to spin endlessly, with no apparent source of energy.
Dr. Jones had anticipated that someone would figure out how the invention worked. More than 700 people tried and failed, he wrote in a 1983 article for New Scientist. A second machine he built for display in Chicago fooled 400 more.
By 2000, he told the Times, its secret still had not been uncovered. And the bicycle wheel continued to spin. (TheWashingtonPost)