Crazy or Brilliant?

Science is a risky business, argue leading 
researchers in a special DISCOVER roundtable. 
You have to gamble big to win big.

By Jordan Hollender
Nov 28, 2012 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:17 AM


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In 1919, Robert Goddard, a forward-thinking physicist and inventor from Massachusetts, wrote that a rocket powered by liquid fuel could escape Earth’s gravity and land on the moon. “A severe strain on credulity,” scoffed The New York Times, a half century before Apollo 11 cemented Goddard’s reputation as the rocket man whose vision blasted into reality. His story was the inspiration for the panel discussion “Crazy or Brilliant: Betting on High-Risk, High-Reward Science,” sponsored by DISCOVER and the Research Corporation for Science Advancement in collaboration with the New York Academy of Sciences. Last May, physicists Brian Greene and Michal Lipson, venture capitalist Shelley Harrison, journalist Jon Gertner, and DISCOVER editor in chief Corey S. Powell gathered in front of an audience in the academy’s glassy New York offices for a spirited discussion about string theory and supermarket scanners, cranks and geniuses, and how in science, as Bob Dylan once sang, there’s no success like failure.

The Dream Lab

Corey Powell: A half century ago, AT&T was the biggest company in the world, and its R&D arm, Bell Labs, was the archetypal incubator for hatching crazy ideas into brilliant technology. Transistors, satellite communications, and the programming language C were born there. Jon, you’ve studied Bell Labs in detail. What made it so special?

Jon Gertner: There were a lot of different ingredients. Being attached to the world’s largest corporation gave Bell Labs a stream of money and the ability to think long-term in a way that failure was acceptable. They could look 10 years in advance without the problem of making quarterly or year-end results. They could tolerate a certain amount of failure that a business-side executive could not. They also had a keen sense of how disciplines could interact and develop new ideas. They were very careful and intent on combining people in new and different ways. They combined loners and extroverts, people with different personalities, as well as applied and fundamental scientists, and experimentalists and theorists.

Powell: Shelley, you actually worked at Bell Labs during its heyday in the 1960s. What came out of your time there?

Shelley Harrison: They were very interested in your being educated in anything you wanted to be. As soon as I went to work there, they gave me a project on the U.S. antimissile system involving microwave beam steering. I designed it in three days, and it took me two months to make it work. After that they said, “Gee, you ought to learn more about microwaves. Go to the school of your choice.” They felt Brooklyn Poly was number one. So I went there and I took a degree in electrophysics. They had the first laser group in the world. So I got real excited. I went back to Bell to work on the antimissile system, but I was publishing in the laser world.

Powell: Even though at the time it wasn’t clear what lasers were good for?

Harrison: Right, though a lot of people thought they would be great for light shows for rock bands.

Shelley Harrison | Jordan Hollender

Powell: I hear Pink Floyd did very well with them. So where did you go from there?

Harrison: I needed a Ph.D. to write these laser papers. I went and got the degree but instead of staying at Bell Labs, I went to suny Stony Brook and became a professor of quantum electronics. One day some people came to me and said: “You know all about lasers. We want to do inventory control.” I said, “Who do you represent?” They said, “The supermarket industry.” “Oh,” I said, “I don’t know anything about supermarkets.” They needed inventory control to know what’s on the shelves or what needs to be on the shelves. So I said, “ok, what do you want me to do?”

Well, Bell Labs made a lot of things public domain. ibm Watson Labs did too. They could afford to do that. They weren’t just exploiting and commercializing things and bringing them out to the world. They shared ideas. The bar code you see imprinted on all these products around the world is the universal product code. It was basically ibm’s system. It was beautiful. So one day I went home and said to my wife and another fellow who was working with me, “We’re starting a company.” “What are we going to do?” “We’re going to make laser scanners to read bar codes.” The company is Symbol Technologies, and you’ve seen our scanners all over the world.

Theory Into Practice

Powell: That raises an important question: How do you find a practical application for your theoretical interests? Michal, you studied photonics, involving the movement and interaction of light. You also collided into the commercial world. How did you make the leap from the theoretical to the practical?

Michal Lipson | Jordan Hollender

Michal Lipson: I did my Ph.D. in semiconductor physics—basic, fundamental science—which had no direct applications. But when I started my career as a professor at Cornell, I wanted to keep the fundamentals and explore new physics. I wanted to know how things work but also develop applications that in a few years would have an impact. At the time, the microelectronics industry was thirsty for a solution to the breaking of Moore’s law, in which computer speed roughly doubles every year. It’s all because of power. Most computer power is consumed by moving data from one point to another. But light doesn’t cost you much power. So I introduced the idea to use light to move data on a computer chip.

It was hard to sell this idea because as a young professor you have no credibility. I remember giving lots of talks and seeing a lot of rolling eyes. I also remember trying to get funding from microelectronics companies and getting a similar response. That was around 2001 to 2004. In 2012, every major microelectronics company is involved in this field. So to get these things done you have to take a deep breath and be ok with having a lot of blood on your arm.

Powell: Brian, you pursued your own high-risk path by staying in one of the most theoretical parts of physics, string theory. When you began your career, string theory was not considered a mainstream or popular area of physics, was it?

Brian Greene: When I started graduate school back in 1984, string theory really didn’t exist on the landscape of physics. There were a few people who were pursuing it, but it was very much a backwater area. Then one paper was written that showed that certain issues could be resolved theoretically, mathematically, with string theory. And then thousands of people dropped what they were doing and started to work in the field. And the core of those people were definitely viewed as this renegade group of physicists who were trying to shake up the establishment.

I should say that when I was working on string theory as a graduate student, the general sense was that it was not a smart move, that it was a fad, that one was doing damage to one’s career by working in this area. It wasn’t that I sat down and thought about it and came to the conclusion that I was going to pursue it anyway. I think the truth—and I don’t mean this in some sort of maverick, wild-man sense—is I just didn’t care. We were excited about it, it seemed like the next great thing to be working on, and that’s what we did 16 hours a day.

Powell: With a supermarket scanner and a faster computer, the payoff is clear. But what is the end result of string theory?

Greene: The end result would not help any of the gadgets we know about. It wouldn’t put food on anybody’s table. But it would be the crowning moment of our species. In principle, we would know the basic constituents of matter, the basic forces by which they interact, and therefore all of the fundamental processes that underlie everything. We are looking for a new species of particles that various theoretical frameworks suggest should be there. You have heard about the Higgs particle [which imbues matter with mass]. And we may have found it, though it’s early in the game. With string theory, we may not find anything that allows us to test other ideas that many of us are working on. That is the high risk. It could be that at the end of the day, I retire not knowing whether a single thing that I did has any relevance to reality. But the high reward is that maybe we’ll answer some of the deepest questions that we’ve ever asked.

Powell: I think everybody here is driven by the intellectual fulfillment of understanding the world. Yet we also share the idea that science and technology allow us to live better lives. So how do we bring the two together? How do we foster an environment where scientists can pursue wild ideas like photonic physics while also helping them realize practical applications?

Gertner: The word ecosystem comes to mind. In science there’s this incredible focus on the breakthrough, the aha moment. But in the years I spent digging through research at Bell Labs, I came to appreciate the arduous development process of trying to make reliable, manufacturable products that would infiltrate the economy. Today, though, when innovators like Michal come forward with something they want to do, can they be encouraged, can they be funded?

Lipson: Because I do experimental work, I do need a lot of funding. And I got a lot of funding from several sources, the key ones being the Department of Defense’s research arm, Darpa [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], and the National Science Foundation. But it has two sides to it. The good side is that a lot of the projects are very visionary. The more difficult side, especially for people starting out in new research areas, is that they get a short leash. They get funding for a year or maybe for three years. And you have to produce results—black-and-white results every six months or so. So that makes it challenging to be creative with no strings attached. There are very few funding sources with no strings attached.

Powell: Money can have two effects, though. Does it mainly weed out the crazy ideas, or does it end up weeding out a lot of the brilliant ones as well?

Harrison: It depends on whether it’s to fund basic research or the development of technology for profit. When you’re setting out to build something that involves the opportunity to profit monetarily—as we say in capitalism—you have focus on that. And the sooner you go out with a great idea to test it against potential customers, the sooner you’ll find out whether this is going to fly and get funded. As for basic science, it’s hard because the groups that have the money could be at the philanthropic end and say, “I’d like string theory to happen in my lifetime, and I’d like to put my name on one of your strings or something.” That’s the way philanthropy seems to work. People like their name to go down in history. That’s why it’s good for government to provide funds for both education and basic research without, well, strings.

Risk and Reward

Powell: What about the role of competition? Has it shaped the evolution of theoretical physics, Brian? If string theory proves a dead end, for instance, will the process be self-correcting? Will people shift to new areas of intellectual invention?

Greene: The worry is that it’s not self-correcting enough. In the old days you’d say, “Do the experiment, and if you don’t find what you predict, throw away the ideas and move on.” Now, even if you don’t find what string theory predicts, that’s not a reason to throw away the theory. It could be the theory’s new features would become manifest with technology generations from now. Although if none of these ideas bear fruit, I do think people will start to focus their attention on other things because there won’t be enough positive reinforcement. I sometimes get into tense conversations because I agree with the bottom-line idea. It is difficult to do science in an era when some of the ideas can be beyond the reach of technology. So I put it to all you guys on the other side of the table: Find a way to test these ideas that goes beyond what we can do today.

Powell: There have been many brilliant technological ideas—videophones, flying cars, space planes, jetpacks—that have turned out to be technically possible but not useful. Do we have a good system for filtering those things out?

Gertner: Yes and no. We have capitalism—people fail and go bankrupt. Back in 2007 I was covering a lot of the funding that was pouring into green energy start-ups. And they were putting tons of money into some absolutely crazy, absolutely brilliant ideas. And I would go to these meetings that were so off-the-record the people wouldn’t even tell me the name of their company.

Powell: Did they put a bag over your head to let you into the meeting?

Gertner: It actually was a little like that: We’ll blindfold you, drive you off the side of the road in Cupertino, and tell you about our supercapacitor that is going to change the world. A lot of these ideas were fantastic. Certainly there was never the anticipation that all of them would work. But people thought some of them—battery technology, fuel cell technologies—would be workable. There was also the optimism that policy would drive the technology, that there would be a price on carbon [a carbon tax], that there would be a logical path toward making these ideas happen. But that doesn’t appear to be the case now.

Powell: Shelley, your experience with NASA is an instructive example of a collaborative era. Can you tell us about it?

Harrison: After I set up Symbol Technologies and a venture fund, this gentleman, Bob Citron, came to me in 1984, a few years after the first space shuttle mission, and said: “You know, there’s a big, empty cargo bay in the space shuttle. There’s no space for the humans. My plan is to build pressurized modules, put them in the cargo bay, and have a little tunnel going to the front end of the cabin where the astronauts are. Once they’re in orbit, we quadruple the volume where they can do experiments in microgravity.” “Wow,” I said, “that looks fantastic. Why did you come to me?” “Well, we thought maybe as an entrepreneur investor scientist, you’d like to fund this.”

I analyzed the problem and decided to invest in this company, Spacehab. With nothing more than a cartoon about what it looked like, we raised $150 million. We built the modules. NASA embraced them. It was an international effort because everybody was interested in space. Space belonged to everybody. You probably haven’t heard much about Spacehab’s role because part of the bargain was I wouldn’t say much about it. NASA in all its glory couldn’t have a little start-up company solve the problem of research in space and making the shuttles useful. Now I guess I can finally say it. But I guess I can’t go back and work with NASA again.

Powell: Maybe the final point for all of us—including funders—is that when it comes to science and technology, it’s a thin line between crazy and brilliant.

Gertner: The line is so fine that at Bell Labs, world-changing ideas like communications satellites were treated as slightly crazy. In Europe, physicist Charles Kao believed optic fibers could be the future of telecommunications. He literally went around the world to the smartest people in the world, including the smartest people at Bell Labs, who said, “Well, yeah, maybe, maybe not.” In retrospect, his idea was absolutely brilliant. But at the time the smartest scientists and electrical engineers didn’t recognize that or couldn’t see the future.

Greene: Look at quantum mechanics. It was this esoteric-sounding subject in the 1920s and 1930s. Trying to understand the structure of the atom and the way electrons evolve in time felt very distant from everyday life, very distant from anything that government should be funding, if it’s funding things that actually make a difference to our lives. But 80 years later, the fact that we have cell phones, the fact that we have all sorts of medical technology, the fact that we have personal computers, the fact that we have lasers—it all comes from a basic understanding of quantum physics. So people need to recognize that basic research doesn’t just enrich intellectual life, which is absolutely vital—it ultimately changes all our lives.

The Panel

Jon Gertner

is the author of The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. His stories on business, science, and society have appeared in The New York Times Magazine. He is currently an editor at Fast Company magazine.

Shelley Harrison is senior adviser and head of U.S. corporate portfolio ventures at Coller Capital. He cofounded Symbol Technologies, which received the National Medal of Technology, and was chairman and CEO of Spacehab Inc.

Michal Lipson is an associate professor at the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Cornell University. She holds several patents for photonic structures that manipulate light and has published more than 100 technical papers.

Brian Greene

is a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, where he codirects the Institute for Strings, Cosmology, and Astroparticle Physics. His books include The Elegant Universe, whose companion NOVA TV special won an Emmy Award.

Corey S. Powell

is the editor in chief at DISCOVER magazine.

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