I recently read John Gertner’s book The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. It had some great insights into the role that a stimulating environment can play in the creative process and how management can cultivate such an atmosphere. Some of the products invented at Bell (such as the transistor, laser, solar cell, etc.) were conceived of many years prior to their invention and introduction into the public sphere, emphasizing Bell’s long-term oriented goals. The book also describes the management’s role in protecting Bell’s scientists from having to worry about funding constraints and government intrusions.
On a more sinister side, it also described the large concessions that AT&T (which owned Bell Labs) had to make to the US government to maintain its monopoly status. It is clear that there were massive efforts on AT&T’s part to ensure that it could stifle its competitors.
The book also goes on to discuss the model of modern-day businesses and how they are different from the Bell Labs model. Where Bell was a monolith, much of today’s Silicon Valley businesses ascribe to a “fail quickly and often” philosophy which is in stark contrast to the Bell method. This part of the book is particularly interesting as it discusses some similarities between Google, among other companies, and Bell Labs.
There is obviously no right answer here as to how things should be run, but the book does contain little gems of insight that are definitely worth storing in a mental vault. It is worth a read.
I am often asked by close friends and family: why condensed matter physics? What is it? What kinds of applications are there? Basically, they are trying to ask in a round-about way: why do you do what you do?
This gets to the heart of why we are starting this blog. In condensed matter physics, we are concerned with creating, discovering and quantifying new phases of matter. Just like in any realm of creative endeavor, one does not know where it is going to lead, and that is precisely why it is worth doing.
For me, there are few things more exciting than discovering a new type of quasiparticle in a solid. Particle physicists are often concerned with discovering constituent particles that can be observed when you take other particles apart. In condensed matter physics, we are concerned with the new types of quasiparticles that can be observed with you put other particles together.
Condensed matter physicists are in some sense creating new little universes with new quasiparticles when they discover new phases of matter. With the number of elements in the periodic table and the number of knobs the condensed matter physicist can turn (i.e. magnetic field, pressure, temperature, etc.), the number of “universes” the condensed matter physicist can explore are almost limitless and are only currently bound by one’s imagination.
These phases of matter or “universes” can sometimes manifest themselves on a macroscopic scale in spectacular ways such as quantized vorticity in superfluid 4He, dissipationless flow of electrons in a superconductor and protected edge states in topological insulators and quantum Hall systems. All of these phenomena are curiously stunning and one gets the feeling that we are just scratching the surface of what is physically possible.
So ultimately, I do what I do because the space for creativity and discovery is vast, it constantly forces me to formulate pictures without logical inconsistencies and most importantly I enjoy it!