From Bang to Net

How Arno Penzias, who won the Nobel Prize for confirming the universe started with a Big Bang, turned his back on pure science and became an investment banker for Silicon Valley

If San Franciscans remember the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exhibition by the faux Greco-Roman ruins left behind by the fair's Palace of Fine Arts, the real hubbub of that year's World's Fair was across the Golden Gate, at the fair's Palace of Liberal Arts in San Rafael. There, on Jan. 25, Thomas Watson, former research assistant to Alexander Graham Bell, answered his former boss' entreaty to "Come here. I want you!" with the ironic reply, "It will take me five days to get there now!" They had just conducted the first transcontinental telephone conversation, re-enacting the first-ever telephone conversation they had had 40 years earlier.

To make the call, Bell Telephone engineers had spent seven years seeking to build an amplifier that would magnify electronic telephone signals enough to allow the signal's oscillations to travel all the way across the country. The end result was the three-element vacuum tube amplifier -- and a research facility in New York City with 550 scientists and engineers on its staff. By 1924 the number had increased to 3,000. The next year, its name was changed to Bell Telephone Laboratories.

By the 1960s, the Labs' research culture had grown from the sort of end-result-oriented research that produced the vacuum tube, the laser, and the transistor, to a more freewheeling approach to science that allowed researchers to take risks.

The idea behind this strategy, former Bell Labs divisional directors recall, was that today's purely scientific discoveries just might turn into technological breakthroughs 20 years down the road.

The largest of the labs was in Murray Hill, New Jersey. The facility, which housed an upward of 4,000 scientists, was one of 21 laboratories in eight states. In 1981, the year before the forced divestiture of AT&T, the Labs employed more than 24,000 people. By recruiting the smartest Ph.D.s in the world, giving them a large degree of freedom in how they conducted their research, and packing them into hutchlike quarters, they created the sort of scientific ferment in which physicists accosted chemists daily to ask for help with materials science problems; physical chemists pestered mathematicians for help solving problems in artificial intelligence; and electrical engineers sat down to lunch with materials scientists and complained of their difficulties solving quantum mechanics problems.

To recruit the world's best scientists, Bell Labs staffers were assigned to maintain contacts with top university professors, ready at any moment to scoop up their most brilliant doctoral students, regardless of their area of scientific expertise. The idea was to create a critical mass of brain power, and let nature take care of the rest, former Bell Labs scientists recall.

Those scientists invented whole branches of science, including radio astronomy and solid-state physics. They gave the world the transistor, the laser, the Unix computer operating system, packet switching (without which there would be no Internet), fiber optics, cellular telephones, communications satellites, information theory, solar cells, and more than 25,000 patents.

The Bell Labs of the '60s is remembered as the scientific version of a workers' paradise. In the Labs' heyday, the speaker lists at international academic conferences would often be dominated by Bell Labs researchers. During the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, the great universities of the world would look to Bell Labs as they structured the focus of their research -- on the assumption that the Labs' main campus at Murray Hill was creating the cutting edge in physics, chemistry, materials science, mathematics, and other fields. Today, many of America's national laboratories and university science departments are led by Bell Labs alumni. Their mandate: to attempt to replicate the research conditions at Bell Labs.

"The 1960s and '70s of the Bell Labs research enterprise should probably be considered a peak example of how to do basic research in the most cost-effective manner," says Kumar Patel, vice chancellor for research at UCLA.

"When I went to the lab in 1969, it was the most wonderful place to do research that one could imagine," says Charles Vernon Shank, director of Lawrence Berkeley Labs. "There were brilliant people, incredible resources, and a wonderful atmosphere for doing research."

The place buzzed with intellectual energy, scientists who worked there recall.

"It's hard for people outside to appreciate the intellectual environment. You could not go out into the hall without finding out something new. And if you were stuck on something, you could find someone who knew about the same thing. It was incredible. In those days you wrote a one- or two-page proposal of what you were going to do in that year. As long as you produced and were recognized by your peers, you were allowed to do what you wanted," says Denis McWhan, associate director for basic energy science at Brookhaven National Laboratory, a U.S. government laboratory in Long Island, N.Y., which has won four Nobel Prizes for particle physics. "It was an awful lot of fun being in the middle of such a vibrant group of scientists. You had to work like hell, that's for sure. We used to come home for dinner and go back and work until 10 or 11 at night."

Adds 1997 Nobel Prize in physics winner Steven Chu, also a Bell Labs alumnus: "To me, Bell Labs was an ivory tower. We felt like the chosen ones. This was the place to do science."

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