Reflections on Bell Labs, Pregnancy and the Koran
CHAPTER 65 Game Changing
We in our area of New Jersey lucked out in the Blizzard of 2016, even though we got some two feet of snow. The snow was relatively dry and the winds blew most of it off the trees so we did not suffer a power blackout. The record snowfall of 26.9 inches in Central Park in nearby New York City was impressive but the death toll in the city did not come close to the some 200 deaths in New York City in the Blizzard of 1888, when the snow accumulation was a mere 21 inches. However, in that storm 80 mph wind gusts made a huge difference, piling up drifts to as high as 30 feet!
The times, they are a-changin'. Bob Dylan's song of the 1960s certainly holds true today. Driving the three miles on the snow-bordered road to my old stomping grounds, Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, I found a new sign out front with a name in big letters - NOKIA. The Finnish company has acquired the French-based company Alcatel Lucent, which took over Bell Labs when Lucent was acquired by Alcatel. Lucent was formed when the Bell System broke up into pieces. As a retiree of what was then AT&T Bell Labs and still getting a monthly pension, I naturally am deeply interested in what the Nokia acquisition portends. From what I've read it sounds like the emphasis will be to build up a premier research effort in France, which doesn't seem to auger well for my Bell Labs, already just a shell of its former self.
I know much of what follows has been said in these columns before but in these game changing days of such as Facebook, Twitter, Trump and Nokia, I can't help but reflect upon the game changers that I knew, met or came close to in my 36 plus years at Bell Labs. In my first hour there in 1952, Ad White, my department head, introduced me to Bill Shockley, one of the three inventors of something called a transistor. I would later find myself in meetings attended by Walter Brattain, the second member of the transistor team. My immediate boss was Morgan Sparks, credited with making the first p-n junction transistor. I would later play golf with Morry Tanenbaum, who made the first silicon transistor and would later become my department head, one step on his way to becoming chief financial officer of AT&T. I also knew Ian Ross, who was made head of Bellcomm, a unit formed expressly for aiding in the Apollo program to land on the moon. Ross and his team is credited with assuring NASA that the surface of the moon was firm enough to support a landing. Ross later became president of Bell Labs.
John Bardeen, the third inventor of the transistor, who would share the Nobel Prize for the invention, was by that time off to the University of Illinois. However, I would later meet Nick Holonyak, Bardeen's first graduate student at Illinois. Nick spent a brief time at Bell Labs, eventually returning to Illinois, where he and one of his students were key players in coming up with the very bright LEDs that made their way into various applications such as traffic lights and stoplights on autos. I spent some years working on LEDs and was thrilled that we could make LEDs bright enough to light up buttons on a telephone!
All of the above individuals certainly qualify as game changers. But there were more. I worked closely with Carl Frosch and Linc Derick, who invented the oxide masking process that others took and modified to make the silicon chips with zillions of transistors. There was Bill Pfann, who invented the zone-refining process that was used to make silicon of unbelievable purity so that tiny amounts of deliberately added impurities could be used to make transistors and other devices. There were Bill Boyle and George Smith, inventors of the charge-coupled device (CCD) used in cameras and telescopes all over the world. At a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the transistor at Bell Labs, I asked Bill and George why they hadn't gotten the Nobel Prize and they demurred. Later, they did get it.
Given my obsession with space and origins, what could be bigger than the confirmation of the big bang theory by Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson when they discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation. I never met either Wilson or Penzias, the closest being sitting at a table next to Penzias while eating lunch in our Bell Labs service dining room. However, I do have a personal letter from Penzias when he was Vice President of Research at Bell Labs. He urged me not to ignore an invitation to write a reflective piece on a paper I had published in the Bell System Technical Journal. The paper had been termed a "citation classic" by an organization with which I was not familiar and Penzias pointed out that he had written such a reflection himself. I naturally complied with his request!
I also knew Cal Fuller and Gerald Pearson, two of the three inventors of the silicon solar cell. Today, the front lawn of Bell Labs is covered with an impressive array of silicon solar cells, as are increasing numbers of homes and other buildings all over the world. After all these years silicon still rules the roost in the solar cell industry on earth, with solar cell efficiencies in the neighborhood of 20 percent converting light to electricity. In space applications, where cost is less a factor, higher efficiency but more expensive gallium arsenide solar cells are in use. I have a solar powered Casio SL-750 Film Card calculator on my desk and it still works after some 30 years. Although manufactured in Japan it's in a sleeve with the AT&T Bell Labs logo on it. I'm not sure what the arrangement was and I assume Bell Labs was handing the calculators out as mementoes.
After writing the preceding paragraph, I had to go to the bathroom, where I do most of my serious reading. In the February 2016 issue of Scientific American, I found a commentary titled "Even Genius Needs a Benefactor" by Nathan Myhrvold, who founded Microsoft Research. He bemoans the fact that companies no longer do basic research, citing the invention at Bell Labs of the transistor and the discovery of evidence supporting the big bang. He also pointed out how inventions in one company often end up making billions for other companies. For example, Bell Labs' transistor earned billions of dollars for Intel and Microsoft, as did Xerox's invention of the modern graphical interface for Apple and Microsoft. Myhrvold counters the argument by many that government spends too much money on science, noting that when he formed Microsoft Research he and Bill Gates did not include basic research in their mission. His bottom line - basic research needs government support.
Well, I had not planned to write about Bell Labs or basic research but just got carried away by the NOKIA sign. One of the things I had planned to mention concerns evolution. Those of us who happen to be human males should be grateful that, as with virtually every animal, evolution ended up with the female bearing the burden of nurturing and carrying the offspring prior to birth. Not so for the 35 species of Hippocampus, the seahorse clan, as I learned from an item in the December 2015 issue of National Geographic. My wife and I have one son who was a "Mr. Mom", taking care of our grandchildren while our daughter-in-law worked in the publishing field. The male seahorse, on the other hand, is truly Mr. Mom.
In their mating ritual, the romantic seahorses "dance" around in close contact, sometimes for days and sometimes face-to-face with tails entwined. Here's where things get weird. The female delivers her eggs by the hundreds into the male's brood pouch; he fertilizes them, seals the pouch, and the eggs become fry. In two to four weeks, depending on the species, the seahorse has contractions (painful?) and the baby seahorses are expelled to make their way in the cruel world awaiting them. As many as 1500 of the little critters can be expelled at one time! And the male is a glutton for punishment - within a day, he can once again become pregnant!
I learned something else not related to science in the December issue of National Geographic but, in view of the chaotic situations related to the conflicts in the Middle East I thought it worth noting. The cover and the main article concerns "The Virgin Mary, The Most powerful Woman in the World." The article deals mostly with details of the reported appearances of Mary at various places all over the world. But the thing that caught my attention was the statement in the article that more space is devoted to Mary in the Koran than in the Bible. Mary has her own chapter in the Koran and many Muslim women venerate her, praying for her in churches as well as in mosques. I don't know but, not having ever read the Koran, I found this very surprising and perhaps relevant to some of today's political controversy.
Next column, hopefully, on or about March 1.
Allen F. Bortrum