High-Risk, High-Reward Science: A Mega-Watt Panel at the NY Academy of Sciences


Where do great ideas come from?
How do you know when you’re on the right path?

These and other questions were addressed in a fascinating panel discussion presented by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, Discover Magazine and Science & the City last Wednesday evening at the New York Academy of Sciences’ spectacular meeting facility on the 40th Floor at 7 World Trade Center in New York City. The panoramic views of Manhattan were breathtaking; the insights inside the lecture hall equally engaging.

The program, entitled “Crazy or Brilliant: Betting on High-Risk, High-Reward Science” was hosted by Corey Powell, Editor-in-Chief of Discover Magazine and featured Jon Gertner, author of the recent bestselling book The Idea Factory; renowned theoretical physicist Brian Greene, PhD; technology investment expert Shelley Harrison, PhD; and MacArthur Genius Award-winning nanoscientist Michal Lipson, PhD.

Powell began by asking Gertner to describe the environment of Bell Labs, the phone company’s research and development arm, considered the archetypal incubator for crazy ideas which turned into brilliant ideas from after World War II until the late 1970’s. How did it foster and discipline so much creativity?

Gertner attributed Bell Labs’ success to the steady stream of money coming in from the phone company which enabled it to “think long term in a way that failure was acceptable. They could look five to ten years in advance sometimes.” The management was excellent, as was the technical expertise, and it could tolerate failure. It gave the research department autonomy and had a keen sense of how disciplines could interact. He also suggested that having a manufacturing expertise in Western Electric was extremely vital to the Labs’ longevity. “When you’re making stuff you think of how to make it happen.”

Shelly Harrison, who worked at Bell Labs, added from personal experience that they were “very interested in you being educated in anything.” He was given a project that took him three days to design and the rest of the summer to make. After the summer, the Labs sent him to the “school of his choice” to learn more about microwaves. At Brooklyn Polytech he got involved with the laser world. After taking a degree and beginning a teaching career at Stony Brook, he relates, some people came along to speak to him about inventory control in supermarkets. IBM Labs had made a bar code and he and his partner at the time envisioned a way to use lasers with bar codes, making automatic data ubiquitous. He shared how difficult it was to raise money “because nobody believed this could happen.” Crazy or brilliant? You make the call.

Powell then approached the difficulty of taking an idea and turning it into a commercial product. “Someone has to believe you’re brilliant and not crazy.” He asked Michal Lipson how she was able to make the leap from theoretical to practical with her work in photonics.

Michal explained that when she started her career at Cornell she had to pick a subject that would keep the fundamentals (learn new physics and discover how things work) but would have direct application. She was lucky in that the micro-product industry was thirsty for finding solutions to powering computers. Moving data consumed a lot of power. Her research in photonics, the movement of light, showed that light doesn’t consume any power. Introducing light to move data from one point to another on a computer chip was a novel idea. Crazy or brilliant? As a young professor it was very hard to sell. She had no credibility. It took lots of talking and lots of rolling eyes. But she kept at it. To date she has been successful with the DOD (Department of Defense) and the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Due to the experimental nature of her research, when funding comes with a short leash, for a year, year and a half or maybe three years, with conditions requiring an accounting of results every six months, it is difficult.

Next, Powell turned to Brian Greene who has spent his career researching String Theory. The unusual aspect of this research is that due to its theoretical nature, issues are raised beyond reach of practical solutions. Although Quantum Mechanics has directly affected our current way of life, String Theory remains somewhat aloof from the entrepreneurial menu. Although the end result of String Theory might not help any gadgets, Greene said, it just might be “the crowning moment of our species. We would, in principle, know the basic constituents of matter, the basic forces by which they interact and therefore all of the fundamental processes that underly everything that we’re talking about in some theoretical sense.”

Science and technology allows us to live better, fuller lives. There’s the intellectual fulfillment of what it means to understand the world, and the technical aspect of having faster computers, cell phones, etc. While the crazier brilliant theme covers both of those, Powell affirmed, the question remains on how to encourage that stroke of brilliance that comes from allowing one person to see that theoretical breakthrough. Gertner commented on how the more research he did which focused on the moment of breakthrough, the more he appreciated how difficult and arduous the development process was and how resilient the scientists were after many trials and failures.

Harrison noted that in terms of marrying science and fund-raising, especially with regards to his work with NASA, what drove funding was that it was a way “to demonstrate prowess in space without shooting each other.” With the absence of the Cold War to ignite a space race or defense funding, he suggests that perhaps a new model may be found in collaborative and interdisciplinary research where “communities get to work together for better purposes, hopefully not military.” This is corroborated by universities setting up campuses throughout the world encouraging students to move about and integrate a diversity of information and practices.

“But why can’t we build a practical electric car?” lamented Powell as he described the “weird barrier” between ideas of things that seem very solvable and the incredible difficulty of actually solving them. He pointed to the difficulty of getting right all the ingredients needed to actualize crazy ideas: perseverance, funding, connections and capital.

Harrison clarified the issue. In business, coming up with an idea that has a potential win, requires convincing others to join you, fund you and then they’ll be your customer. With science, a group that has money can be philanthropic, i.e. “Put my name on one of your strings” because that’s how philanthropy works a lot. Government’s role should be to fund education and basic research without strings.” (Big laugh from audience!)

He went on to say that science needs better public relations and education so that we develop innovators with more hypotheses. There should be greater respect for teachers and scientists than the people going to Wall Street to collect a big paycheck. He touched briefly on an area which he believes could yield important breakthroughs for the betterment of society by suggesting we explore the mind-body connection, especially the brain’s neuroplasticity, to integrate it into our healing system.

I’ll give Powell the last word since it was, essentially, his party. When it comes to encouraging scientific creativity and innovation, he admonished, “Participating in the political system is so much more important than buying a bottle with a slightly smaller cap that uses a little less plastic.”

For more information pertaining to this panel discussion, visit New York Academy of Sciences.

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