The Archetype Physicist Entrepreneur Speaks on Exploration and Success

Berkeley Professor Emeritus and Nobelist Charles H. Townes spoke at a small lunchtime gathering today at the SETI Institute, and as a Berkeley physics alumna I just had to see him again. Some might have expected less given his advanced years, but I must say he is amazing – his mind keen, his wit gentle and his wisdom deep. Listening to the good professor once again is a real honor and privilege.

Dr. Townes is also what I would characterize as the archetype of the Berkeley “Physicist Entrepreneur” – not because Dr. Townes has led start-ups or became another Bill Gates, since this would be a far too limited and reductionist use of the term entrepreneur. Dr. Townes is rather an entrepreneurial thinker, someone who is not afraid to look outside the bounds of convention. As he illustrates himself, much of Dr. Townes success was a result of desiring to explore an unknown question and persuading others to just let him try. “Exploration pays off big” said Dr. Townes, but you can’t guarantee what the pay-off will be, so a businessman or government representative fixated on short-term gain may be uninterested. The narrower the focus, the smaller the gain.

Dr. Townes provides a few simple maxims for the successful physicist entrepreneur:

1. Just because you know the answer doesn’t mean you’re right.
Dr. Townes recalled how Dr. Welch, head of the astronomy department at Berkeley attempted to dissuade him from working on detection of ammonia in nebula, because Dr. Welch believed this compound would be unstable. Dr. Townes proceeded with his plans, and to everyone’s surprise they found ammonia, the first of many molecular compounds found in the cosmos.

2. Don’t let everyone else tell you what is impossible when they don’t know why.
When Dr. Townes presented his application for a patent for Bell Labs legal to process, he was told that no one would ever communicate using light and that it was a waste of time. He did eventually persuade them to process it. Can anyone say “optical communications”?

3. Even the smartest of experts shoot from the lip sometimes…
Dr. von Neumann at a function with Dr. Townes at Princeton dismissed the notion of the maser. Dr. Townes shared the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics with N. G. Basov and Aleksandr Prokhorov for contributions to fundamental work in quantum electronics leading to the development of the maser and laser.

4. …But really good people recognize when they’re wrong and admit it.
After thinking about it for 15 minutes, Dr. von Neumann changed his mind and said that it could be done. He didn’t let ego blind him to the truth. People who tell you they “never change their mind” should be avoided, since they value their ego over character. If someone persists, just tell him “You’re just like von Neumann at 14 minutes and counting but aren’t at 15 yet” and let them puzzle out the rest.

5. We get set in our ways, culturally as well as personally, and find it too easy to say no.
Dr. Townes found his experiences on the Board of General Motors to have been fraught with difficulty. He found they just didn’t want to re-examine any of their assumptions, because things were fine. That is, until they weren’t fine. They were too comfortable with living off of past success, and found it easy to stick with what worked. Until it didn’t.

6. We must try very hard to make good things happen.
Dr. Townes is a cautious optimist. In his long life, he has seen us develop weapons which could wipe out most of our world, and he has seen us walk on the moon. “We have big difficulties we have to struggle with, but the potentialities are enormous”.

Dr. Townes still sees scientific worlds waiting to be explored. The two fields he specifically cited as exciting are biophysics and astrophysics. When he was entering into physics, Dr. Townes found biology limited to the “descriptive”. Now he believes it is exploring “fundamentals”. “If I were starting out now, I would probably go into biophysics”, he said. Given my son is attending UCLA in biophysics and my daughter is preparing to enter Berkeley in a year in astrophysics, Dr. Townes’ thoughts on this matter are personally gratifying, because like every parent I worry about the choices my children are making, and science right now is not held in esteem. But Dr. Townes words reassured me. Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time to hear what you need to hear.

Dr. Townes final piece of advice for aspiring physicist entrepreneurs. “Do challenging things”, he exhorted! “Don’t get into a rut and just specialize in one thing”. “Be willing to take chances”. And most importantly, “failure in a project is not failure in life”. Bold words to live by from a great physicist entrepreneur and a great man.

[For another view on C. H. Townes, read Valuing New Ideas with an Open Mind]

Estrin on Innovation – A Change of Heart?

Judy Estrin and I have both been around in Silicon Valley. I was at Symmetric Computer Systems soldering the first five motherboards for the 375 while she was at Zilog with Bill Carrico (who was the product manager for the Z80). Paul Baran, a great influence on my work in layer-4 switching using dataflow techniques (InterProphet patents) was a student of her father’s at UCLA (where my son is off to in a couple weeks, but in physics, not computing). 386BSD Release 1.0 was launched about the same time Precept was launched (based on multicast, not TCP, using video streaming as a demo platform for the technology). Like Judy, I didn’t get to the Ph.D. stage, because I was impatient to get into the big start-up boom of the 1980’s. Judy worked with Vint Cerf at Stanford (where she got her master’s) on TCP, while Vint vetted my work on SiliconTCP and was on the Board of Directors of InterProphet. We’re both moms who juggled diapers and meetings, and suffered a lot of “can you do this” incredulity. Judy and I both received the coveted and unusual Geek of the Week award, but they spelled her name correctly on the nameplate (it’s Lynne with an “e”).

Judy and I have had our differences. Packet Design, now Judy-Lab (JLAB) was launched as a rival to InterProphet in 2000 (we’d already done our first patent, prototype and product by that time), and while it was far more successful in fundraising than InterProphet ever was, it didn’t get nearly as far. Perhaps there is something to be said about running lean. Egos cost big.

But all that said, I salute her for daring to write a book that indicts Silicon Valley’s disregard for investing in innovative or risky technology. This cult of “renovation, not innovation” as espoused by Ray Lane has, as Judy puts it “created a kind of root rot in the valley and the nation as a whole.” Judy herself I am sure has suffered from this bottom-feeder mentality. It is impossible to run a small research lab like Judy does when the ideas developed are ignored. Think it was tough in 1998 when InterProphet was launched? At least we got a million on a handshake then to develop the concept. In 2008 it is literally impossible to finance any semiconductor company for any reason unless you have an inside deal with Intel – something innovators just don’t tend to cultivate in the rush to actually build something.

So bravo, Judy, for writing how this “non-strategic time” (remember when you warned everyone about this in response to one of my questions way back in 2001?) is merely catabolizing Silicon Valley and not giving back. I’ve been discussing this for years, and put my life on the line for this cause (in open source), just as you do now. Who would of thought that the two of us would be fighting side-by-side?