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Includes the name: Jon Gertner

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The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2004 (2004) — Contributor — 741 copies


Common Knowledge

20th Century



Curiously (given my fondness for books on polar exploration), I enjoyed the second part of this book, which describes in depth the techniques and politics of glaciology and other ice-related sciences, more than the introductory description of early European and American exploration of Greenland. I guess I prefer detailed stories of individual expeditions more than short versions of multiple explorers (I prefer novels to short stories, so I suppose that makes sense in a way).

My already not-very-high opinion of Robert Peary fell even more when I read of how he extracted two meteorites and sold them to raise funds for his future explorations. Nice for him, but not so great for the local populations who lost their only source of metal for making weapons and tools. And it was sad to read how Alfred Wegener, who developed the theory of Pangaea and continental drift as I learned in [b:Assembling California|19898|Assembling California|John McPhee|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1388306591l/19898._SX50_.jpg|26821], died in an effort to bring supplies to his colleagues in the interior before winter set in.

But what really fascinated me was the detailed descriptions of how the significance of ice cores became obvious, the progress of the technology for their extraction, the implications of the enormous weight of the ice on the ground in Greenland, and the integration of land and air based methods of improving our understanding of exactly what goes on with all that ice. Most importantly, the all too scary prospect of what could happen to low-lying cities, and even countries, if major ice sheets in Greenland or Antarctica break off.

That information is all very well presented, and if it interests you, you can skip the first part of the book without missing anything.
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BarbKBooks | 6 other reviews | Aug 15, 2022 |
Gertner, Jon. The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. Penguin, 2012.
Jon Gertner’s history of Bell Labs is told through portraits of some of its star scientists and administrators. Arguably, Bell Labs did more to shape the development of communications technology than RCA, Microsoft, and Apple, yet its stars were much less famous than David Sarnoff, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs. Ironically, Bell’s most prominent figure was William Shockley, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on semiconductors but is better known for the racist ideas on IQ he advocated in his retirement. Unlike the Edison lab, Bell was never a one-man show. It fostered collaboration from the beginning. In the first decade of the twentieth century, one of its early administrators, Theodore Vail, decided that for AT&T to succeed, it had to use political clout to become a monopoly and live up to its corporate motto: “One policy, one system, universal service.” He asked one of his engineers, Frank Jewett, what it would take to create a transcontinental phone line by 1914. Jewett’s idea was to raid the research labs of universities for scientists and engineers to solve problems that went beyond current engineering knowledge. They first tapped Merwin Kelly, a young Ph.D. working on electrical theory at the University of Chicago. Kelley became an administrator who for years fostered creative collaboration between theoretical scientists and engineers. Bell built a huge building in New Jersey with long halls that meant that researchers had to pass by the office of other researchers to get anywhere. They had to bump into each other every day. In fact, Claude Shannon, an engineer and mathematician who became the “father of information theory,” brought a unicycle to the office to navigate the halls. Sadly, Bell Labs, like AT&T, became the victim of its own success. It outgrew its “natural monopoly” and developed communication industries that did not at first require a corporate behemoth to prosper. The folks at Apple and Microsoft should take note. 5 stars.… (more)
Tom-e | 21 other reviews | May 6, 2022 |
Really enjoyable. Introduces you to all these great characters who were fundamental to the creation of basically all of our modern technologies. The semiconductor, the laser, satellites, fibre optics. Shockley, Shannon, Pierce, Baker, Kelly.

Also a snapshot of the Bell Labs system that arguably made it all possible.
1 vote
royragsdale | 21 other reviews | Sep 22, 2021 |
> Like Kelly, Shockley rarely lingered over any one project. That he had figured out the essential concepts for nuclear power on his own (actually, the idea came to him while he was taking a shower) merely seemed an intriguing interlude in a frenetic schedule.

> Scientists who worked on radar often quipped that radar won the war, whereas the atomic bomb merely ended it. This was not a minority view. The complexity of the military’s radar project ultimately rivaled that of the Manhattan Project, but with several exceptions. Notably, radar was a far larger investment on the part of the U.S. government, probably amounting to $3 billion as contrasted with $2 billion for the atomic bomb. … the Japanese squadrons flying toward Pearl Harbor were picked up well before they arrived. The officers monitoring the stations disregarded their readings, thinking the blips to be friendly aircraft

> vanishingly small impurity mixed into silicon, having a net effect of perhaps one rogue atom of boron or phosphorus inserted among five or ten million atoms of a pure semiconductor like silicon, was what could determine whether, and how well, the semiconductor could conduct a current. … Bardeen and Brattain’s device, Bown simply noted, was “a basically new thing in the world.”

> One of his paper’s underlying tenets, Shannon would later say, “is that information can be treated very much like a physical quantity, such as mass or energy.”

> “He was not an unfriendly person,” Slepian adds, “and he was very modest,” but those who knew him and extended a hand of friendship realized that he would inevitably fail to reciprocate. They had to seek him out. And in calling on him (knocking on his door, writing, visiting) one had to penetrate his shyness or elusiveness or—in the case of expecting a reply to a letter—his intractable habits of procrastination and his unwillingness to do anything that bored him.

> the creator of the mystery sentence would stand before a blackboard filling in blank spaces (as in Hangman) and telling them whether their guesses fell alphabetically before or after his words.

> Theseus was a boon for the Labs in making Shannon a minor celebrity in a way that information theory never had. The Labs produced a short movie about the maze and the mouse

> He would frequently receive letters from some of the most notable scientists in the world. And these, too, would languish. David Slepian recalls that the letters would eventually get herded into a folder he had labeled “Letters I’ve procrastinated in answering for too long.” On rare occasions when Shannon did reply to someone whose original query he had pushed aside, he would begin, I am sorry to be so slow in returning this, but…. It seemed lost on Shannon that the scientist who had declared that any message could be sent through any noisy channel with almost perfect fidelity was now himself a proven exception.

> Here, then, was a picture of Claude Shannon, circa 1955: a man—slender, agile, handsome, abstracted—who rarely showed up on time for work; who often played chess or fiddled with amusing machines all day; who frequently went down the halls juggling or pogoing; and who didn’t seem to care, really, what anyone thought of him or of his pursuits

> He and Betty bought a grand house by a lake in Winchester, Massachusetts; soon after, Shannon purchased a Massachusetts Transport Authority bus so he could gut it and reconfigure the inside into a perfect camping vehicle—with a stove, bunk beds, and folding tables. In his free time—or was it all free time?—he experimented with a rocket-powered Frisbee, a gasoline-powered pogo stick, and his various unicycles. He also started to build intricate juggling machines where balls and rings weren’t actually juggled by mechanical figurines but were instead moved on hidden guidewires. All the while he began thinking about outfitting a special room in the big house with mirrors—on the floor, ceiling, walls—to create the illusion of an infinite stretch of rooms where none existed.

> AT&T offered two fig leaves. The first was its agreement not to enter the computer or consumer electronics markets. The second concession, at least on its face, seemed far more dramatic: The phone company agreed to license its present and future U.S. patents to all American applicants

> That was a natural monopoly. The whole system—an analog system—wouldn’t work if it was done by a myriad of companies.” But when Shannon explained how all messages could be classified as information, and all information could be digitally coded, it hinted at the end of this necessary monopoly.

> Lucky recalls that during a phone call Pierce might suddenly hang up in the middle of his own sentence, leaving the person on the other end with the impression that a technical glitch had ended the call. No one could imagine that he would hang up on himself.

> Pierce himself was assigned to work in the research department on vacuum tubes, where he was given free rein to pursue any ideas he might have. He considered the experience equivalent to being cast adrift without a compass. “Too much freedom is horrible,” he would say in describing his first few months at the Labs. Indeed, he eventually came to believe that freedom in research was similar to food; it was necessary, but moderation was usually preferable to excess.

> Pierce’s real talent, according to Friis and Pierce himself, was in getting people interested in something that hadn’t really occurred to them before.

> Pierce had a reputation around the Labs as a wordsmith. As usual, Pierce didn’t hesitate before tossing out a suggestion: How about calling it a transistor? That his suggestion was eventually adopted after a vote was, Pierce would say, “my one claim to eternal fame.”

> the office with a five-drawer file cabinet that he had labeled “bottom drawer,” “next-to bottom drawer,” “middle drawer,” “next-to top drawer,” and “top drawer” —Pierce

> Pierce let Wells know that one of his science fiction concepts—an atomic bomb—was coming true: America was building one. He had deduced this from the way most of the country’s good physicists were disappearing and being directed to secret laboratories around the country.

> The new cable that Bell Labs was planning for the Atlantic crossing in 1954 would carry only thirty-six telephone channels at tremendous expense and tremendous risk of mechanical failure.

> So now there were transistors, the horn antenna, the traveling wave tube, solar cells, and the maser. Even with the right electronic components, though, communications satellites weren’t going anywhere yet. There was still no proof that aeronautical engineers had developed rockets that could propel the idea into space. Proof arrived dramatically in October 1957 when the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik satellite.

> Eventually they realized that when Baker showed modest enthusiasm—if something sounded very good to him—he didn’t particularly like it. “If he really liked something,” his colleague Irwin Dorros recalls, “then he would use about ten adjectives: that is a terrifically outstanding and superb contribution that has exceeded all expectations, or something like that.”

> Jack Kilby at Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce at Fairchild had different, better ideas. Both men, nearly simultaneously, came up with the idea of constructing all of the components in a circuit out of silicon, so that a complete circuit could exist within one piece—one chip —of semiconductor material

> the integrated circuit would represent something new for Bell Labs: a moment when a hugely important advance in solid-state engineering, though built upon the scientific discoveries at the Labs, had occurred elsewhere

> The first working laser—the name came from a man named Gordon Gould, a former associate of Townes, who also made a successful legal claim to the invention—was not built at Bell Labs. Nor was it built by Schawlow and Townes. Rather, it was developed at Hughes Aircraft, in Malibu, California, by an engineer named Ted Maiman

> $100 million, which was what AT&T would spend on cellular before it went to market—on a technology that offered little guarantee it would succeed technologically or economically

> many of the essential patents were given away or licensed for a pittance. And those technologies that weren’t shared were duplicated or improved upon by outsiders anyway. And eventually, the results were always the same. All the innovations returned, ferociously, in the form of competition.

> AT&T would agree to divest its local phone companies, which would all become separate corporations in their own right. At the same time, AT&T would be released from the old consent decree, made in 1956, that prevented it from entering into other industries.

> in the United States in my college days, most of the time was spent on the study of political leaders and wars—Caesars, Napoleons, and Hitlers. I think this is totally wrong. The important people and events of history are the thinkers and innovators, the Darwins, Newtons, Beethovens whose work continues to grow in influence in a positive fashion.” Shannon

> Some Bell Labs discoveries in the 1980s were as noteworthy as what had come before. For instance, a young physicist named Steven Chu, who would later become the U.S. secretary of energy, figured out a way to “trap” and study atoms at freezing temperatures by means of laser beams. Another Bell Labs team discovered and explained a complex physical phenomenon known as the fractional quantum Hall effect

> As Pierce saw it, the great laboratories of the twentieth century had a clear purpose: “Someone depended on them for something, and was anxious to get it. They were really needed, and they rose to the need.” For Bell Labs, Pierce noted, the need was modern communications.

> Bell Labs and AT&T had “never really had to sell anything.” And when they had tried—as was the case with the Picturephone—they failed.

> it sliced off its huge telecom equipment division—what had essentially been Western Electric—into a new company called Lucent. In the course of this split, most of the Bell Labs staff went to Lucent, which retained the Bell Labs name for its research and development department. Yet a number of the Labs’ researchers, including many mathematicians, were whittled off from Murray Hill to go with AT&T. This group was relocated to a new AT&T facility, now known as the Shannon labs … Lucent’s revenue plunged. Its stock price, which had peaked at about $84 a share, fell below $2.

> Kelly believed the most valuable ideas arose when the large group of physicists bumped against other departments and disciplines, too. “It’s the interaction between fundamental science and applied science, and the interface between many disciplines, that creates new ideas,” explains Herwig Kogelnik, the laser scientist

> Bell Labs invariably lent some of its genetic material to this process—a number of the new ideas for computers or software relied on transistors or lasers or the Unix programming language, for instance. Eugene Kleiner, moreover, a founding partner at the premier venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, was originally hired by Bill Shockley at his ill-fated semiconductor company. But the Silicon Valley process that Kleiner helped develop was a different innovation model from Bell Labs. It was not a factory of ideas; it was a geography of ideas.

> A technically competent management all the way to the top. Researchers didn’t have to raise funds. Research on a topic or system could be and was supported for years. Research could be terminated without damning the researcher.

> the size of the staff at Bell Labs, and its interdisciplinary nature, were large factors in its success, too. So was the steadiness of the Labs’ funding stream, guaranteed by the monthly bill paid by phone subscribers, which effectively allowed the organization to function much like a national laboratory. Bell Labs managers knew they could support projects—the undersea cable, for example, or cellular telephony—that might require decades of work. The funding stream also assured the managers that they could consistently support educational programs to improve the staff’s expertise and capabilities. And as Morry Tanenbaum, the inventor of the silicon transistor, points out, Bell Labs’ sense of mission—to plan the future of communications—also had an incalculable value that endured for sixty years. The mission was broad but also directed

> John Mayo, among other things, offers this: “We learned that the impossible is not impossible. We learned that if you think you can do something you may very well be able to do one thousand times better once you understand what’s going on.”

> Janelia Farm, the campus serves as an elite research center for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Janelia opened in 2006 with the intent of attacking the most basic biomedical research problems; it is patterned after Bell Labs and backed by a multibillion-dollar endowment.
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breic | 21 other reviews | May 24, 2021 |



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