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]

When Security Means Silence

My daughter is studying the play “Judgment at Nuremberg” by Abby Mann for English Lit, so for fun we decided to rent the wonderful 1961 movie version and watch it together as a family. The play depicts the trial of four judges who committed crimes under the guise of executing the law under Nazism, the responses of victims, and the interplay between state mandate and personal responsibility. Intercut with actual footage of Nuremberg during that time as well as actual footage of atrocities committed by the regime, and filled with wonderful actors (Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland, Montgomery Clift, Werner Klemperer, and William Shatner), the play underscores the series of step-by-step legal decisions which ultimately denied justice, steps beginning with loyalty oaths and mandates against associating with inappropriate (labeled by the government) people and leading to the subversion of the entire judicial system in the name of maintaining the fiction of law during a genocidal war. And even though each judge was deemed responsible and “guilty” by the presiding trial judges (2-1, not unanimous), the lead defense attorney indicates that within a short time all those convicted will be released – which they eventually are.

I am struck with how much the lessons in this play, learned at such great cost in WWII, are still relevant today. Bruce Schneier in his latest CryptoGram security bulletin notes that non-classified NASA researchers working at JPL are now suing NASA and CalTech over invasive background checks. According to the Associated Press account of the lawsuit filed, “the Commerce Department and NASA instituted requirements that employees and contractors permit sweeping background checks to qualify for credentials and refusal would mean the loss of their jobs. NASA calls on employees to permit investigators to delve into medical, financial and past employment records, and to question friends and acquaintances about everything from their finances to sex lives, according to the suit. The requirements apply to everyone from janitors to visiting professors.”

I know there are people who will loudly proclaim that those who refuse to sign probably have something to hide. But this isn’t a standard background check – this is a blank check for the government to look at your mammogram results, bug your neighbors, examine your tax returns, follow you on vacation, and generally treat you as a criminal when you have committed no crime and there is no threat of a crime. Would anyone really sign a form that let’s their employer talk to your ex-wife or follow you into the PTA meeting or bar after work? Would you like your doctor asked questions about what you told him in confidence? I sincerely doubt it. It would be really stupid.

One thing about the leading researchers on the Mars rovers, the Galileo probe to Jupiter and the Cassini mission to Saturn — they are not stupid. They are well-known world-class scientists being told they must sign away their Constitutional rights (the 4th and 14th Amendment) or lose their jobs. It’s scary. And it’s absolutely suicidal for America’s space program.

Finally, for those pundits who say we don’t need a space program, I suggest they look at the progress China and Russia are making. America has dominated the space exploration biz for over 40 years, and we have reaped the rewards in scientific achievement (which translates into big bucks in the commercial sector over the long run) and prestige (which means we get things our way most of the time). In fact, we’re so used to getting what we want from the world that we actually think we don’t have to work for it. To use a common phrase, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. We can’t afford to kick out our best and brightest because some government bureaucrat wants to break out of the GS-12 dead-end pay level by inventing threats. Because at the end of the day, somebody has to pay for that lunch one way or another. Let’s hope that our lead in space exploration isn’t the price.

Global Warming, Prop 87 and Investments in Silicon Valley

A few weeks ago, Stanford held their Global Climate and Energy Project workshop – three days of presentations on how we can innovate on global energy technologies to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The talks ranged from solar energy technologies to bioenergy storage to carbon mitigation / capture / separation / storage, plus a plethera of poster presentations. The key issue is a simple one – we’ve got to replace our energy needs – particularly coal – with carbon-free technologies to keep atmospheric CO2 under 550ppm. And that means changing our way of doing business and our way of selling lifestyles.

Berkeley Physics Bids Farewell to Nobel Prize Winner and Colleague

Last Sunday in the Great Room of the University of California at Berkeley Faculty club, the physics department held a memorial for Dr. Owen Chamberlain, physicist, activist and Nobel prize winner. Owen, who died on February 28th, 2006 after a long bout with Parkenson’s disease, was a protege and colleague of the late Dr. Emilio Segre, with whom he shared the 1959 Nobel prize in physics for their discovery of the antiproton.

Dr. Segre died in 1989 (the same year Owen retired) and the Berkeley physics department held a very nice memorial service for him as well. I suppose one reaches a “certain age” and memorial services start to appear on the calendar (don’t get me started with the ever-aging computer side of the business – one could end up going to funerals every month at this rate). My Berkeley physics advisor, Professor Frank Crawford, retired in 1991 and died in 2003 after also suffering from Parkinson’s for about a decade. While Dr. Crawford was known for his love of music, he had a bit of a rebellous streak, best exemplified by his “corrugohorn” – a length of flexible corrugated brass pipe that he turned into three basic horns: a bugle, a neck horn and a slide corrugohorn. He used to boast that he was the only member of the Berkeley physics faculty with a peddler’s license, and I think that is probably still true today.

Owen was a complicated man in a department known for strong personalities and beliefs. He was an activist involved in causes ranging from nuclear disarmament (he was one of the Manhattan Project boys and knew what it could really do) to free speech. He was one of the few people who dared to engage Dr. Teller in debate, because as Dr. Charles Morehouse recalled “Teller would drag everyone else around the stage”.

“Well, We Can Save the Foot, but We Need to Cut Off Your Hand First”

One of the most cynical of scurrilous management tricks is to cut a major project that works so you can have their budget, be caught with your hand in the cookie jar by the public or journalists or favored customers such that you “have to give it back”, but then turn around and make them pay for your well-deserved embarrassment by knifing some other favorite project. Politicians know this one cold – the old “we’ve got to cut [Name of worthy project that everyone loves] to save [Name of another worthy project that everyone loves]” – conveniently forgetting there are a lot of “Stupid projects no one loves except my patron/master/boss” that could and should be cut. As noted political commentator Daffy Duck says “That’s despicable”!

Latest in the “Cut off your hand to save your foot because you didn’t let me cut off your foot in the first place” prize goes to NASA for targeting other missions to pay for Hubble, which they should have had budgeted to begin with. According to Tony Reichhardt in Nature, “Last week, NASA turned in a revised budget plan to Congress that includes cuts and delays to several programmes, including the roving Mars Science Laboratory and searches for planets like Earth. The proposed cuts would also lead to belt-tightening in the Hubble project itself, where grants for guest observers would be reduced by an average of 13%.”

Branding Constellations

Is it any surprise that in an age of “branding” some folks would think it’s a perfect time to rename all the Constellations? No, I didn’t think you’d be surprised. Of course, the complaints are usually something of the order of that the sky is full of “pagan” symbols, or that no one cares about some woman chained to the rocks (Andromeda) unless she’s Xena. But somehow those good old names live on.

In fact, co-opting the stars into new constellations for an agenda is an old trick (from Hinckley, “Star Names, Their Lore and Meaning (1899,1963) pp16-17):
“It has been the fashion with astronomers to decry this multiplicity of sky figures, and with good reason; for, as Miss Clerke writes in her monograph on ‘The Hershels and Modern Astronomy’: Celestial maps had become “a system of derangement and confusion,” of confusion “worse confounded.” New asterisms, carved out of old, existed precariously, recognized by some, ignored by others; waste places in the sky had been annexed by encrouching astronomers as standing-ground for their glorified telescopes, quadrants, sextants, clocks; a chemical apparatus had been set up by the shore of the river Eridanus, itself a meandering and uncomfortable figure; while serpents and dragons trailed their perplexing convolutions through hour after hour of right ascension; with more to the same effect. This condition of things led the Royal Astronomical Society, in 1841, to depute to Sir John Herschel and Mr. Francis Baily the task of attempting a reform. But although improvement was made by the discarding of several figures and the subdivision of others, their changes were too sweeping and were not successful, so that as the constellations stood then, in the main do they stand today, and so will they probably remain, at least with the people. “

So don’t be surprised if someone tries to rename Andromeda “Xena” to sell a video game. But if the Royal Astronomers couldn’t get away with it, I wouldn’t lie awake at night worrying about Nintendo. Now, I suppose we should discuss Pluto and planetary designations, right?

When Unbridled Competition Breeds Contempt for the Team

The computer biz is a very ruthlessly competitive profession, so it’s no surprise that our kids in Silicon Valley are also very competitive and individualistic. But there’s also the concept of the team working towards a goal. And when that basic underpinning is lost, so is respect. Contempt for members follows – whether we’re working on a new storage device or operating system, or on a robot.

So where are we heading? Julie Patel wrote a balanced article on why the very successful Gunn High School robotics team imploded, resulting in their disbanding. It contained enough to read between the lines as to what really happened. It’s a good Silicon Valley morality tale on how contempt can replace respect, suck in even “responsible adults”, and ultimately take out everyone on the team.

Fun Friday – Huygens Probe Has Landed Successfully!

The Huygens probe has landed successfully on Saturn’s moon Titan. Congratulations are in order to the European Space Agency (ESA) who built Huygens and to NASA who launched, and delivered Huygens via the Cassini orbiter. Huygens is now in communication with Cassini orbiter for later transmission to Earth.

Huygens landed and is transmitting telemetry! So it didn’t land hard, fortunately. But what do you think it landed on? Mud? Liquid? Rock? Or an unfortunate Titanian?

Spotlight on Hidden Physicists

One of the pleasures of keeping up with your alumni obligations is that you can find out what other people are doing. Sigma Pi Sigma, the National Physics Honor Society, publishes Radiations Magazine, a bi-yearly discussion of issue relevent to the physics community. And one of their nicest features is their Spotlight on “Hidden Physicsts”. You see, not everyone who has a physics degree goes into research, so it’s nice to make a connection. For example, I didn’t know that Sun’s Assistant General Council Marilyn Glaubensklee had a physics degree, but there she is right next to a writeup on me. Small world, isn’t it.

The Forces of Nature – “Paradise and Hell”.

As the casualties continue to mount after the great Indian Ocean tsunami, with entire families and villages swept away, I found the words of Lars Collmar, a Lutheran pastor at Stockholm’s Adolf Fredriks Church on Wednesday night instructive. “Slowly it is coming to us that we have been hit by a tremendous catastrophe. We live in a world which is at the same time paradise and hell.”

And nature, which gives us so much, also shows us how easily things can be taken away. I wish everyone saddened by this tragedy peace of mind, comfort and closure in the coming year.