Why you should care

The Little Dutch Boy may have put his finger in the dike, but 12-year-old Peyton Robertson has put his fingerprints all over the future of disaster response.

In October 2012, most Americans sat glued to their televisions, paralyzed by the sense of horror and impotence of watching Hurricane Sandy leave a trail of destruction along the East Coast.

Peyton Robertson, then 11, was one of them. As a Florida native, he had experienced firsthand the devastation that hurricanes can cause. At the age of 4, Peyton lived through Hurricane Wilma — the most intense tropical cyclone ever recorded in the Atlantic — and watched, huddled in a closet with his family, while the storm ravaged his state and left 25 dead.

So after watching the news coverage of Sandy, instead of throwing his hands up in the air, Peyton hurried upstairs to his “science room” — yes, his science room — and started working on a way to help.

Countless hours and several failed prototypes later, Peyton had invented the sandless sandbag.

Countless hours and several failed prototypes later, Peyton had invented the sandless sandbag. The idea might sound counterintuitive, but sandbags are the most common form of protection from floods despite being very heavy (around 40 pounds), difficult to transport and easily carried away if the currents are strong.

Peyton’s invention tackled all these flaws by simply replacing the sand with two other materials: polymer — which absorbs and expands when immersed in water — and salt, which insures the bags will always be heavier than the pushing waters.

This ingenious design makes Peyton’s invention 38 pounds lighter and significantly more effective than the conventional model. A new interlocking mechanism also prevents gaps that could allow seawater through and, once the liquid has evaporated, the bags return to their original size and can be easily stored away for future use.

What makes Peyton truly exceptional is not his scientific skills but his infectious enthusiasm.

It will be a while before his invention hits the shelves of your nearest Home Depot, but several experts are already saying it could reduce the havoc caused by hurricanes — the most common form of natural disaster in the U.S. — and save countless lives and properties. “He understands the big picture. He thinks in terms of the impact on society. He’s thinking in terms of safety for the people around this area,” says Dr. Antonio Nanni, a professor of engineering at the University of Miami.

Americans have been using the familiar sandbag at least as far back as the Revolutionary War.

The panel of scientists that named Peyton America’s Top Young Scientist for 2013 no doubt agreed. Along with the title, Peyton received a $25,000 check that he said would go towards college, which, at this pace, should not be far down the road.

In a country where standardized test scores are particularly low in math and science, it’s inspiring to find a young person with such a passion for these subjects. Yet what makes Peyton truly exceptional is not his scientific skills but his infectious enthusiasm. “My parents taught me that whenever I saw a problem, I could invent a solution to fix it,” he says.

If you don’t believe us, watch this video and try not to feel uplifted:

Video:

Now that’s science

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