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]

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Lynne

Lynne Jolitz is a startup entrepreneur, inventor, and creator of new innovative technologies. Lynne is also a writer on tech trends for publications like Byte and Dr. Dobbs Journal.

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