Recreating Bell Labs

Bell Labs was created in the 1950’s, perhaps one of the most prolific times of human innovation. It coincided with Project Manhattan and has remained one of the most fascinating time periods of history for me personally. Here’s something again from The Nature:

Bringing back the golden days of Bell Labs | Nature Reviews Physics

The achievements of the Bell Labs researchers have been recognized by nine Nobel prizes and four Turing awards, the best-known inventions being the transistor, laser, charged-coupled device and photovoltaic cell. Bell Labs was the birthplace of information theory, the UNIX operating system and C programming language. Bell Labs researchers not only made fundamental breakthroughs in understanding the electronic structure of materials and discovered new phenomena such as the fractional quantum Hall effect, but they also created new technologies that enabled great discoveries, for example radio astronomy and the discovery of the cosmic microwave background — the relic radiation from the early Universe. Other Nobel prizes recognized the importance of the development of methods that are now essential tools in many fields of research: electron diffraction, laser cooling, optical tweezers and super-resolved fluorescence microscopy.

But there were other ingredients articulated in 1950 by Mervin Kelly, director of Bell Labs. Kelly’s core belief was that “basic research is the foundation on which all technologic advances rest”. He called the labs “an institute of creative technology” and had a very clear vision of how such an institution should be run, from the people he hired to the layout of the rooms of the building he helped design.

So how did they collaborate to bring about the fundamental breakthroughs?

Attracting such talent was not a problem, rather the challenge was to create the right environment for it to thrive. “We give much attention to the maintenance of an atmosphere of freedom and an environment stimulating to scholarship and scientific research interest. It is most important to limit their work to that of research”

Deadlines? Progress reports? Bureaucracy? Financial grants? How did the current scientific regime degenerated, and why it can’t it be possible to recreate the same system? This has been the focus of numerous papers, and I believe, for those who are beginning to realise the importance of investing in talent. I think it has to do with the clear political leadership determined to work on a long-term roadmap and deep understanding of goals. Project Manhattan was involved with creating an atomic bomb and means of delivery. They did that on an industrial scale, but the involved individuals were determined to overcome the challenges imposed due to the unknown. It is impossible to recreate the similar conditions that made the original research thrive. Maybe, perhaps, we have plucked the low-hanging fruit or there’s nothing more fundamental left to discover. Maybe, the next wave of breakthroughs will appear from quantum mechanics. Maybe, from wringing “AI”.

Here’s something interesting from a design perspective:

The policy of keeping the office doors open fostered an atmosphere for the free exchange of ideas where newcomers could go and talk with researchers like William Shockley, one of the inventors of the transistor, or Claude Shannon, father of information theory. The Murray Hill building also had labs and machinery available to try out new things. It hosted an amazing repository of scientific and technical know-how.

The rest of the opinion-editorial delves into the financial aspect, but grandiose projects require a slow and steady build up. Yet, this does provide food for thought.

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