Prosthetic Prof Climbs New Heights

I went to Popular Mechanics' Breakthrough Awards last night with pretty low motives: a chance to schmooze with some of the editors who pay my rent. Maybe I'd grab a beer or four in the process. Instead, I walked out uplifted by one of the most inspiringly cool stories I had heard in months. It came from the night's final honoree, MIT media lab professor Hugh Herr.hughherr.jpgAs a kid, Herr was a lousy student and good rock climber -- a very good rock climber. Then, in 1982, he "became stranded on Mount Washington, New Hampshire for nearly four days in -20 F temperatures and blizzard conditions," one biography notes. "Severe frostbite damage took its toll on his lower legs, and both of his feet had to be amputated six inches below the knee."Improbably, Herr swore he'd climb again. So he became a bookworm, eventually winding up in field of prosthetics. He developed a knee that "adapts to the users walking style, adjusting resistance to allow for a secure, agile gait," Pop Mech observes. "Next, he plans to distribute sensors beyond the knee to allow the device to move in response to subtle electrical changes in muscles nearby."Herr is already helping out soldiers wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq. And he is making good on his promise, to get back to climbing. In fact, he says, his new artificial legs are better than his old biological ones. Special wedge-like "feet" allow Herr to slide into cracks in the rock face that he could never use before. For ice climbing, Herr can slip attach spiky crampons to the end of his prosthetics. Or he can use Inspector Gadget-esque extending legs for extra reach.In school, Herr told the crowd of a hundred or so at the American Museum of Natural History, he kept raising his height an inch a day, to see how long it would take for people to notice. "It took until I was about eight feet tall," he laughed.Standing on that stage, hopping around on his man-made legs, eight feet seemed like an understatement to me.

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