WASHINGTON - Some facts to drop at your next cocktail party:
* Since 2007, Procter & Gamble Co. has devoted 11.1 million computing hours to the study of soap bubbles. (You can quote Ray Orbach, former undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Energy.)
* Less than three ounces of water can generate the same amount of energy as a supertanker full of oil (says Tomas Diaz de la Rubia, chief research officer for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory).
* When it comes to greenhouse gases, things could be worse. In the atmosphere today, carbon dioxide levels are about 380 parts per million. Fifty-five million years ago, a time of mass extinctions, they exceeded 800 parts per million (per Wayne Clough of the Smithsonian Institution).
Those were just a few crumbs tossed off at what was billed as "a summit on the state of innovation," but felt closer to an old-fashioned salon.
Imagine a sleek room of black and chrome filled with the smart set - university presidents, corporate leaders, scholars, scientists, and a provocateur or two thrown together to strike sparks.
In the course of a day, conversation ran from fusion to folding cars, high-performance computing to Pringles packaging, patented ball caps to the meaning of life.
Sponsored by the Council on Competitiveness and the science magazine Seed, the seminar Tuesday at the Newseum explored creativity - and, more specifically, how to generate it. Along the way, there were a few side trips, led by the big thinkers in the room.
One protagonist was biologist Edward O. Wilson, professor emeritus at Harvard University and one of the great minds of our time. The Alabama-born Wilson turned a childhood fascination with ants into a life of study that concluded that much human social behavior is genetically based.
At 80, he remains a master of the bon mot.
"We have Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and Godlike technology," he said at one point, identifying the source of our problems.
He pressed the assembled to consider the largest of questions: "What is it to be human?"
No answer was offered, but that was not the point. Rather, organizers were hoping for just that type of intellectual challenge and something else as well from the Wilsons in the room, consilience.
That is a fancy word for the interlocking nature of all sciences and humanities and the belief that life's puzzles are more easily solved by joint efforts across disciplines.
And, if there was a consensus Tuesday, it was that innovation flourishes with collaboration. Much conversation turned then on how to facilitate such collusion.
George Campbell Jr., president of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, noted a great challenge of academia was breaking down walls between disciplines.
"The very structure of academia is organically resistent to organizational change," the former Philadelphian reflected. "It has been said that major curriculum change is a sacred undertaking not unlike moving a cemetery: Lots of things in it are dead, but they have many friends who aren't."
When the laughter subsided, Campbell, a Central High graduate who has a doctorate in theoretical physics, told of Cooper Union's attempt to foster collaboration through architecture.
The school is nearing completion of a new building that will encompass 40 percent of its academic space. It is designed with open and interconnecting public and private areas wrapped around an eight-story atrium. The goal is to force even the most siloed scholars to bump into one another occasionally.
Panelist Geoffrey West went Campbell one better in promoting his own facility, the Santa Fe Institute, as an academic center that, with its founding 25 years ago, launched an era of scientific collaboration.
"The most important place at the Santa Fe Institute is our kitchen," where the highest level of sophisticated schmoozing is encouraged, said West, a theoretical physicist with degrees from Cambridge and Stanford. "We hope that out of 100 conversations, maybe one might lead to something serious."
The chief bomb-thrower of the day was Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, who was intent that the assembled see design as more than an afterthought.
She ran through a slide show of such arresting images as designer-shaped meats grown in a laboratory from a single muscle cell; imagined sperm cells shaped like letters; and a demographic grid charting in bloodlike shades the cost of incarceration for city blocks in Brooklyn.
"I want to blow your mind," she told her listeners. "And you thought design was just cute chairs. It is so much more."
And then there was Jim Phillips, as earthy as some were cerebral.
Entrepreneur, business executive, technology specialist, Phillips has played a major role in a long list of successful products (personal pagers, cable modems, palm-top computers) as well as companies (SkyTel, Motorola Inc., iPIX).
The chief executive officer of Pinnacle Enterprises, Phillips spoke of the practical problems of creating and then marketing a new product.
He came with props, a duffel bag filled with his latest "innovation" - the Zipcap, which seemed at first glance to be an ordinary baseball hat.
With a flourish and impish grin, Phillips pulled at a barely visible zipper that ran around the seam of the cap, and, viola! the lid came off to reveal a visor.
"I'll end it with that," he said, as the room of achievers cheered.