Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation, and it’s Monday, September 8, 2014. I’m at the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, with David Kaiser. The first thing I’d like him to do is tell us his name and spell it.
David Kaiser: My name is David Kaiser. The last name is K-A-I-S-E-R.
Kelly: Great. And tell us your role here at MIT.
Kaiser: So here at MIT I teach about physics and the history of science. I’m also the department head for MIT’s program and science technology in society.
Kelly: That sounds like a very ambitious program.
Kaiser: It doesn’t leave much out. So that covers areas of history and the sociology of science and technology and the areas of science policy—those kinds of things.
Kelly: That’s terrific.
Kelly: We’re going to take advantage of your very broad knowledge of MIT’s history, the Manhattan Project, and innovation and entrepreneurship and the relation of science in society—I mean all of those great topics.
Kelly: Should we start with a little bit of MIT history?
Kelly: We know it’s a storied institution and you wrote the book for its 150th anniversary.
Kaiser: That’s right. So the institute was founded actually just as the first shots of the US Civil War were being fired. It was founded right in 1861—a very dramatic time in history. We just had its 150th anniversary in 2011. It’s an institution with a modest amount of history, but a lot of future ahead of it, and it’s an exciting place—lots going on.
Kelly: Tell us about how MIT changed its emphasis from the 1920’s and then leading into the 1930’s when some of the Manhattan Project characters emerged at MIT.
Kaiser: MIT has gone through a number of waves in what its leadership and what its faculty and students thought should be its main goals. Early in the 20th century, right around the time of coming out of World War I, the leadership was convinced partly to make up for a huge loss of funds during the war, that they should have a much closer relationship with local industries. There had always been some connection to local industry and technology since the school’s founding. But, early in the 20th century there was a felt need to really ramp up that relationship—something called the technology plan.
And, it was, in some ways, a great success. It did put the institute back on a secure financial footing. About a decade or two in, by the late 1920’s there was some real unrest on campus. This turn tied MIT too narrowly to the interests or the goals or the priorities of industries at the expense, at least some faculty began to feel, for basic research, for longer term goals, for knowledge production that might not have an immediate pay off but that might be the ground work or the framing for later innovations. So, getting that balance right was a real struggle.
Right around 1930, when Karl Compton became president of MIT, Compton had a background in basic physics—not in engineering or technology—and he tried to sort of pretty sternly readdress the balance and put a new emphasis on basic research, basic science, with the goal of kind of feeding longer-term engineering, but not to have short-term technological goals dominate the institute.
So, certainly in hindsight, Compton’s reforms really set MIT on the kind of path that we can recognize today. So, all of our undergraduates take a whole year of physics—much more than average of other institutions—they do a whole year of mathematics—calculus and related things. Biology and chemistry going along with basic sciences, with which they can then pursue you know the whole gamut of science, technology, and beyond.
It was really Carl Compton and some of his sort of close assistants in the leadership—people like the Vannevar Bush and others who emerged in that time who helped sort of rebalance or rejigger MIT’s core central strengths.
Kelly: That’s great. We did a little, short documentary on Crawford Greenewalt.
Kelly: Who was a chemical engineering student here in the 20’s I believe. Can you describe, give us some examples of what you mean by how the 20’s were sort of allied with industry.
Kaiser: Part of this so-called technology plan, the idea was to have a lot of research done on campus with faculty and students under sort of contract or under a close relationship with a local industry—sort of research for hire. And that, again, led to some very good work. It was, in some cases, exciting work. Some projects pushed the boundaries of what was known. But, years into that process some faculty began to fear that the emphasis was on short-term projects that might have been relevant, especially to say the company, but might not have built you know kind of longer lasting basic knowledge.
There were concerns about who is setting the intellectual agenda for the institute—is it the faculty or is it the kind of outside sponsors? And then, often as a concern, who has access to that knowledge? Sometimes trade secrecy would control how much of that research could be published in the open literature or only used by the one company that had funded it. There were merged concerns about who was in charge for the direction of the institution. So, certainly some good work came out of it.
It did, without question, put the institute back on a firmer, financial basis. It was really hobbled coming out of World War I. So, it played many good roles. The question was, as usual, was balance. How much of the kind of very close-coupled work with local industries compared to more autonomous longer-range basic research. By the late 20’s, many faculty on campus felt that their balance had swung too narrowly on the kind of short-term industrial collaborations to the exclusion of longer-term basic research.
Kelly: Well, in a way it’s partly the alliance between the academia and the industry at that time. It’s kind of a reflection of the fact—is it not—that the government didn’t play a very big role?
Kaiser: That’s right.
Kelly: Maybe you could talk about that.
Kaiser: Yeah. It’s amazing in hindsight. Many of us grew up with a system that just seemed to make sense, or certainly the one that we became very used to. Which, as we now know, has its roots very squarely in World War II in which the US Federal Government was by leaps and bounds the largest supporter of basic research as well as more applied projects across American campuses—colleges and universities. It absolutely came to dominate by a huge proportions the amount of funding that went into support research, and education, and all kinds of projects. That’s sort of the 1940’s and beyond story. And in fact, before World War II it was a remarkably different story in American higher education, American research. The Federal Government played a very small role—practically no role at all in fact—in supporting research on campuses.
Actually, there’s a kind of long tug of war in American history between what role the federal government should play in education. So, right around the time that MIT was founded, during the Civil War, there was the passage of the Moral Land Grant Act. That’s what gave every state in the Union at least one, and eventually at least two, public universities. It’s a big, big important step in American higher education. And then almost a century, the better part of a century went by before there was a comparable kind of federal role to be played in higher education. Education in the interim was seen as really strictly a local, maybe state level, but mostly local concern and not something for Washington D.C. to be controlling or to be influencing.
In the 1920’s and 30’s there was among the leadership of all the nation’s sort of elite universities and colleges all across the country, there was a real concern to basically keep the federal government out. There was very little appetite within the federal government to be spending much in higher education. It just wasn’t the system. The system research was therefore done partly from fees from students that didn’t amount to much because research has always been expensive, even back then.
Most of the research was funded with grants from local industries or contracts or sort of arrangements with local corporations or private philanthropy—so either individual donors or some of the larger foundations, like the Rockefeller Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation. It was nongovernmental funding that really drove research in the 1910’s, 20’s, and 30’s. And then, that really went through this enormous sea change with World War II.
Kelly: So tell us how Compton and Vannevar Bush, who was his I guess his vice president—how did they change things in the early 30’s?
Kaiser: One of the first things that Compton did—Karl Compton—when he became president of MIT was to revisit the curriculum, was to revisit the balance of research projects on campus, and try to encourage a different balance—not all one or the other, but to get closer to a system that he thought would be sustainable for longer term. That meant a greater emphasis on basic sciences—it might have no immediate application in improving products or in industrial applications—and to build that up at the undergraduate level so that every student had a very deep grounding in basic sciences and mathematics.
And then, to let the more applied or engineering aspect sort of build on top of that. He wanted to have a firmer foundation of basic research that might have no immediate interest or application beyond the campus. That was, again, sort of a big deal. That was a real shift from what had been the norm—the standard way to do things—here, and in fact in many places, until that time.
Kelly: What was Bush’s role?
Kaiser: Vannevar Bush is a fascinating character. He was an electrical engineer, among the early ones. That was actually a fairly new profession when he was a young man. So, he was joining a growing field. Clearly incredibly gifted, a tinkerer—he loved using his hands. Loved sort of building things as well as thinking more abstract thoughts about how to make the machines go. And, he was also very far sighted in trying to think about university and industrial relationships.
He helped found the Raytheon Company. He was very interested in applying knowledge well beyond the ivory tower. And he also grew to have a very important role on campus in leadership. He was dean of the School of Engineering for a while and eventually rose to be vice president and then left MIT and helped really build the system for the federal support of basic research, again that we came to know coming out of World War II.
More than a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor, so long before the United States had entered World War II in any formal way, MIT had really joined the war effort—at first in secret. Starting in the autumn of 1940, about a year into the war in Europe but before the United States had entered the conflict, MIT began building what became known as the Rad Lab or the Radar Research Headquarters, for the entire Allied project.
The British had made some very good progress on radar even into the 1930’s, well before the war had broken out, and then, were clearly sort of stymied once they were fully into war to maintain that kind of research. A delegation from Britain came over to the United States, met with people from MIT and other places, and worked out a deal that they would share what they knew, they would share actual devices as well as more abstract knowledge on radar so that the Americans could sort of take over since the US was not subject to the repeated aerial bombardment. There was a capacity to get real solid work done even as Europe descended into war.
So on the basis really of little more than a phone call—it is amazing how informal things were at the time—Karl Compton, the MIT president, was able to arrange for a substantial amount of space on MIT’s campus. I think the biggest casualty were faculty parking spots, which was a big deal but you know, war was coming. MIT set up a modest size facility at first. Of course it grew rapidly over the course of the war and became known as the Rad Lab. Its goal was to improve upon the basic designs that the British had in radar. And, not just work out chalkboard designs, but really go into very fast paced prototype and get lots of devices built and get them really into aircraft and installations all around the various theaters of war.
So, MIT threw itself into this radar project. It grew to be an enormous facility. It rivaled the entire Manhattan Project in personnel and in cost. It was kind of an all-consuming affair right here on campus.
Kelly: How many people do you estimate worked on it?
Kaiser: Well, I said it rivaled the Manhattan Project—it rivaled Los Alamos. It had a technical staff of around 4,000 by its peak. The budget was comparable. The budget was also you know in the order of a few billion in 1940’s dollars. But it was about 4,000 technical personnel and then the associated kind of assistants beyond that. So, it grew very rapidly.
Part of what they did was to train people to use these new devices. They had a very active training program. They would practice trying to spot aircraft from the tops of campus buildings they were landing at what is now Logan Airport, or also the Hanscom Air Force Base. So, there were plenty of planes taking off in the vicinity. Both the MIT specialists and increasing numbers of their kind of army and navy students could practice spotting things sort of in real world tests with these new devices—with these radar machines.
They went through many, many, dozens and dozens of varieties of devices, one type after another with little improvements or little sort of changing the specs here and there. Some would be better serving one kind of air craft and some would serve a certain kind of ground base. They wanted to get a wide range of types of radars up and working.
Kelly: So how important was radar to the war effort?
Kaiser: You know, here at MIT it was not uncommon after the war to hear people say that the atomic bomb might have ended the war, but radar won the war. There’s something to be said for that. Certainly both were immensely important in the way the war wound up. But radar became one of the first ways to turn back the U-boat challenge, for example. There was a way to get very short wave length radars, which could start to spot these tiny, little periscopes from the German submarines that would just peak above the water level. They certainly became important for all kinds of air campaigns and so on.
So for civil defense, for offense within Air Force related maneuvers radars became sort of incredibly important throughout both the European and the Pacific theaters.
Kelly: To what extent did our enemy have radar?
Kaiser: Well, the basic notions of radar were not unique to either the British or the Americans. I think the Allied effort based here in the United States was able to make immensely rapid progress. But the basic ideas predated World War II and we now know there were radar projects in many countries. The Japanese had their own radar project. It never got nearly so advanced during the war as the Allied effort did. But the ideas of using radar signals or electromagnetic waves, that was not completely unknown. The ways to really improve that to get…better and better resolution, to be able to use the signals more and more accurately, that really became an Allied success story.
Kelly: Did the Germans have radar?
Kaiser: I don’t know. Almost certainly, though I don’t know much about it.
Kelly: How about the proximity fuse? Can you talk about that?
Kaiser: I think of that mostly as a John’s Hopkins [University] development. I’m sure there are parts that build the radar from here. But in general, the proximity fuse used the new advances in radar to be able to, in some sense, get a range of how close the device was to its intended target. That meant it had to have some real-time knowledge of its location as it approached some sort of target so that the device could detonate for maximum impact. The proximity fuse was building on the latest developments in radar. It was mostly designed, as I understand it, at the Applied Physics Laboratory at John’s Hopkins University, which like many, many colleges and universities across the United States, had gotten very deeply involved in the war effort.
Kelly: For some reason I associate Vannevar Bush with that.
Kaiser: He certainly might have helped once he was at the OSRD [Office of Scientific Research and Development] or the NDRC [National Defense Research Committee], but I don’t think of that as being done too much on campus here. Again, it had radar, it was built upon ideas about radar, so, clearly it had some MIT connection. I think the fuse itself was really a Hopkins project.
So, during World War II MIT hosted many, tens of thousands, of service men and women throughout the course of the war. Some of them were here specifically to learn about the new radar systems, and there was a very kind of rapid throughout training course just to learn radars. But, many of them were here for all kinds of projects. Some were learning about other types of communication devices, radio waves and sort of rapidly improving communications techniques. Others were here to learn basic physics and mathematics, whether that was to help with sort of targeting projectiles or any number of things.
There was a widespread effort, again, across many campuses in the United States to get members of the military trained in really sort of basic mathematics and physics and some chemistry and other things that they would need. Then, the training could become more specialized from there. MIT did an awful lot of basic training—not basic training like in the Army, but basic training in mathematics and the basic sciences—and then did have these specialize courses for certain sort of devices or applications.
Kelly: Do you know if MIT plays any role like that today?
Kaiser: Well, we do. MIT certainly still has many connections with the armed services. The Department of Defense is still an enormous supporter of research on campus, as it is on many campuses. There are programs for officers to come here and complete some of their training. It’s not infrequent you see Air Force officers taking courses in everything from political science to nuclear engineering. I don’t think it’s nearly the presence on campus it was during the war of course, but we can see kind of legacies to this day.
A few weeks after World War II had ended, so in early November of 1945, MIT hosted a huge festival, for about three days, they opened up the campus. It was called Victory in Science. It attracted something like 75,000 people from all over the New England area to come get a glimpse at many projects that had been very highly classified during the war. This was an effort to see some of the fruits of research, defense-related research that had been going on behind closed doors during the war. So, it had exhibits—it was almost like a world’s fair.
It had exhibits on jet engines. It had exhibits on wind tunnels to improve the aerodynamics of airplanes. Of course it had many exhibits on radar, which had been such a large MIT focus. It had exhibits on things like the proximity fuse. It even showed films on the atomic bombs. It had lots and lots of materials on projects that until September of that year were very tightly under wraps. So, it was an enormous display that sort of took over the whole campus.
Kelly: That is terrific. Do you know if there’s anything left of that? I suppose the films remain?
Kaiser: I’m sure they do. I don’t know; our MIT museum very likely has some good records on that. There are people who had been people at MIT who donated their personal correspondence and things to MIT and that’s partly where we learned about things like the Victory in Science—from the personal collections. They had flyers and handouts and sort of the program from the display.
Our recent MIT president, Susan Hockfield has said—and I think quite rightly—that our entire research enterprise in the United States really is modeled on the Manhattan Project. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. The assumptions behind how basic research should be done, let alone applied projects or mission oriented work, but even very basic research, which might not have an immediate payoff or immediate application—the system for supporting that kind of work really was fastened in a hurry under great duress during World War II in the United States. And, it had an enormously long-lived legacy. In fact, we really in some sense are still within it to this day. Many features that were put together in the 1940’s still are how we organize and fund and disseminate the results from research today.
So, the biggest factor of that was the shift in who was paying for basic research. The shift came very squarely to be from private sources to the federal government. That was, in some sense, the story of World War II when it comes to science and technology. That is still the overwhelmingly dominant source of funding to this day at universities and beyond.
The second shift was not just the source of money, not just where it came from, but how much. So the federal government stepped up its appropriations, its spending on science technology many, many fold—by factors of 25, even if we control for inflation. It’s just an exponential, explosive growth in the amount of money available for research, including basic research, as well as the source of it.
Another innovation, which sounds a little more narrow but actually turned out to be quite important—we still do this to this day—was the way in which those funds would be dispersed. That meant contracts between the government and individual universities or campuses that was different from grants, different from gifts. This was actually one of the insights of Vannevar Bush who wanted to preserve something like an arrangement between two almost seemingly equal parties.
Now, there was no way that any individual college was equal to the federal government, but to maintain that form of interaction. These were two independent groups forming a mutually beneficial relationship. That should be a contract, not a gift, not just monies dispersed you know with no strings attached. So, Vannevar Bush put in place literally the system by which the money would be dispersed true to this day. And, of course, helped engineer the shift in scale and source of those funds as well.
So you know, we still have enormous basic research funded by the defense agencies of the federal government. Since World War II, that’s expanded to civilian sectors like the National Science Foundation, like NASA, like many others—like the National Institutes of Health, which of course predates World War II. But in general, the idea of having enormous funding for basic research, basic science and technology, coming from the federal government, that’s a World War II story.
Another legacy we have from World War II is often called ‘big science’. Now, in some sense big science predates World War II. There were enormous projects in the Renaissance, let alone in the 1930’s. But to have big science with certain very specific characteristics, for that to become widespread or common, that again is really a legacy coming out of World War II.
Big science often refers to machinery, instruments, or equipment that simply is larger than any one individual or even small groups of individuals could possibly build or maintain on their own. So, it has a kind of grandeur in scale—things like the enormous nuclear reactors or particle accelerators, atom smashers. These are instruments that very rapidly became much bigger, much more powerful and just larger in physical plants, in physical size, than any kind of modest sized research group could ever maintain on their own. So, this became something that the federal government stepped in and actively paid for and maintained and built many of them so many people could be pursuing research in parallel, training many more students at cutting edge techniques. And from that grew a system that became the US National Laboratory system to foster that kind of research—larger than any one research group, sometimes larger than any one university could every sustain on its own.
We have, again to this day, a system of integrated laboratories funded predominantly from the government to pursue very big projects—very large, collaborative, often interdisciplinary projects—that sort of spill beyond what any one group of researchers could every kind of manage on their own. Now again, that’s how we do astrophysics, that’s how we do a lot of research in biomedical sciences, as well as in areas that were closest to the original forms, like say space exploration or rocketry or nuclear forces. This has become an unavoidable way that certain kinds of sciences are done today.
The national laboratory system was established in a firm legal basis immediately after World War II. It was part of the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which was really just putting into a peacetime basis, or postwar basis, what had sprung up very rapidly during World War II for projects like radar and especially for the Manhattan Project. These were such enormously sprawling projects that they had many, many sites that had to be coordinated across the continent, including some even in Canada but many, many in the United States. So soon after the war, there was an effort to make that kind of formalized into a formal, national laboratory system.
In the early years, that was run by the Atomic Energy Commission, which was a nominally civilian government body with very strong ties to the defense agencies that was in charge of the nuclear weapons arsenals, and many other projects like that. But it was a civilian agency. Then, by the later 1950’s and into the early 1960’s there was a realization that these enormously sophisticated facilities could be doing more than only nuclear projects related research. So, they began to diversify the projects that each of these laboratories could take on. By the 60’s and certainly into the 1970’s there was a great emphasis on kind of a broader range of projects—growing research on environmental concerns, energy concerns, sometimes on electronics that would eventually be helpful for say the consumer electronics trade.
So, the emphasis expanded over the years after World War II to have the laboratories focus sometimes quite narrowly and deeply on defense projects, but also to have a kind of fuller ecosystem to have projects that were not nearly so tightly bound up with the original weapons projects. It was a way to maintain again, kind of a research capacity for the nation and to try to expand as the nation’s own needs would evolve as well.
During the late years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century, the United States had many projects, many areas in science and technology of which it could be proud. But, it was really not a world leader by any measure. Many European colleagues would frequently remind their American friends of that fact. Everyone knew that—the Americans were certainly talented in some things people would say very patronizingly, but nowhere near the kind of world leadership in physics, in chemistry, in anything that people could mention.
In fact, this became apparent even to many leaders, political leaders in the United States, coming out of World War I when science, technology based devices, whether it was early aircraft or submarines or all kinds of munitions that other places like Germany were able to take advantage of during World War I, the United States was clearly just in no comparable place to take advantage of homegrown talent in science technology. So many leaders, both from the scientific community and from the political leadership, tried to jump-start and change that pretty rapidly after World War I. There was already a notion that the United States was somehow behind other world leaders in these areas.
Over the course of the 1920’s and then with more difficulty in the 1930’s when the Great Depression really hit and made anything harder to do, but there were efforts to try to build up a domestic US-based talent pool in science and technology. That took many forms. One very clever and relatively inexpensive system was to send young US students over to finish their scientific training in Europe. So, sometimes they would be undergraduates here and then get a fellowship to do their graduate work in Germany or France or Britain predominantly. Or, they would do their doctoral work here but then do a post-doctoral fellowship overseas.
This became the routine for all the eager, ambitious you know, bright, young Americans. That was what one did. One took this tour over to Europe for several years of intensive scientific training and then they came back. Many of them took this mission very seriously. Again, they were very eager to take what they learned at the feet of these sort of European masters, where the new sciences were being created, like quantum mechanics, the relativity revolution. These were really European stories for say the birth of modern physics in the early years of the 20th century. These very bright Americans, people like Robert Oppenheimer and Isidor Rabi and many others of their colleagues, finished their training there and came back with the purpose, with the expressed intent of building up American training centers to match what they themselves had been beneficiaries of over in Europe. John Van Vleck and John Slater—many, many of these folks came back with fervor to improve the training in science and technology in the United States. And, by many measures, they really did begin to have that impact.
Already by the mid 1930’s some European physicists would grudgingly admit that they actually had to wait for the American journal to arrive because it was well worth reading. Before then, they’d say it was never worth reading. So even before World War II there were signs that there was a kind of infrastructure, there was an ability, there was pool—a talent pool that was being very carefully cultivated and nurtured with growing recognition even abroad.
Another aspect of the story, as the 1930’s wore on and as fascism took over more and more of the continent, the United States absorbed many, many brilliant scientists and mathematicians who had to flee central Europe—whether they were fleeing the Nazis or fleeing Mussolini or other horrible regimes. So the United States had sort of homegrown talent from the 1920’s and early 30’s, an influx of amazingly talented émigrés, and this was really a very powerful combination. By the late 1930’s, as the clouds of yet another war were really undeniable, the US had world-class capacity in science and technology. And then when the US entered the war more squarely, when resources were finally made available on a very large scale, that kind of talent on the ground was able to really sort of run with it very rapidly.
So there’s no question coming out of World War II that the center of gravity for science and technology had shifted decidedly away from Europe, away from Asia or other parts of the world, and had landed without question in the United States. There was a gradual transition. In hindsight we can see sort of steps being taken from many years earlier. But, all the pieces sort of came together so that coming out of World War II the US had undeniably become the sort of scientific center of the world.
We’re now about 70 years after World War II, roughly. We can look back with hindsight and ask how did those systems evolve or change over that timeline. In many ways, we’re still living within a system that was built during World War II. Enormously generous funding for basic research from the federal government, a contract system across virtually every college and university in the country to be able to take on projects and pursue research of every shape and size and dimension. But, it hasn’t been an unbroken story.
One of the big stories of the 1970’s was again an effort to shift the balance, not to go all from one or the other but to try to re-equilibrate a bit and get a new form of investment from private industry, from corporations which had not been playing a large role in the support of science and technology in this quarter century between say World War II and the late 1960’s. So, this is the early stirrings of what we now know as biotechnology for example, which is really not first and foremost a kind of federal government story. It is largely a story about biotechnology startup companies—private corporations working very closely with local scientists at universities and making spin off companies and doing a whole different way of pursuing their research. A lot of it right here around MIT, also famously in California around the San Francisco Bay area. So, that became an additional model. It never replaced the World War II model, but it certainly has grown in importance.
Even here at MIT in recent years the research expenditures have been say 70% federal government and about 30% other sources, including large amounts of private companies in close relations with industry. So, it’s still 70% looking like a World War II model, whereas not all that long ago it was still 80 or 90% federal. So, you can see a shift—not all one or the other, but growing a kind of diversity of ways of trying to support research in science and technology.
Kelly: How does that shape the outcome of what the research is at MIT?
Kaiser: It’s hard to say how it shapes. One thing it does, this kind of broader range of types of partners or people helping to support very expensive research is that frankly more types of work can get done. So, it needn’t only be in the kind of large mega projects of big science. Sometimes it can be much more nimble, kind of small, individual laboratory projects that nonetheless have partnerships off-campus to try to help small things grow when the time is right. So, there are many ways to move forward, that’s the answer now.
There still exists, you know thankfully there still exists, enormously large projects which might have 500 researchers spread around the world working really with one device. The big science model is still alive and well. But there are frankly smaller scale or entrepreneurial, more flexible projects as well. I think now you can sort of see everything from one end to the other.
Many of our students, undergraduates, are very excited about sort of making an impact in the world and they don’t always see that as saying they’re going to join some very big company and be a part of some very big machine. A lot of them have the small, nimble startup culture kind of feel. So, there is a range of kind of paths that students can really think about and pursue.
Kelly: Maybe we could go and explore a little bit the nature of entrepreneurship and innovation. How does MIT foster the kind of spirit that people tend to associate with creativity?
Kaiser: One of the things that I think MIT does really well, and has done in some sense since its founding, is a real emphasis—even many years ago—is an emphasis on combining abstract knowledge or theoretical knowledge with the kind of hands-on quest to make things. That was as true when you look at the original curriculum from the 1860’s and 70’s as it is today. The MIT motto is “Mind and Hand.” I think that really captures the notion that should be abstract knowledge is incredibly important and has its own joys and is worth pursuing. But, there’s an effort to join that with hand, with making things, with feeling and doing and making.
One of the ways we see that really built into the curriculum is an enormous emphasis on project work. Undergraduates and grad students and faculty for that matter are always, always, always involved in teamwork, in projects that span beyond one individual or usually span beyond the expertise of even one department or discipline. So there’s a huge emphasis on interdisciplinary projects, research, often quite informally and then we can have more formal arrangements built up from there.
Our students are learning really from day one to work in teams, to work in teams with groups with people who have kind of complementary skills and interests, and really figure out how to get the best out of each of their expertise. And, we build that into sort of you know group assignments from their first year of undergraduate. So, that’s one way to try to foster creativity or at least innovations that might not come from only one little corner but to really force people to be sort of seeking out other smart people who have other passions and other skills and to see what they can build together.
Kelly: One of the things that a lot of people don’t understand is the way people use the term science and engineering and what the difference is between them. Could you help explain that?
Kaiser: Science and engineering, you know they clearly share a pretty broad overlap and yet they’re not the same thing. They’ve also changed a lot over time. So, the boundary can get blurry as we try to look back and find a kind of bright line between them. One of the things interesting—going back to World War II—was the degree to which the two different styles had to come at a very rapid contact. So, at the Rad Lab, here at MIT, on many Manhattan Project sites there were people trained in engineering who were sometimes for the first time working very closely—elbow to elbow—with people trained in very abstract and very theoretical basic sciences. The knowledge transfer went both ways.
Julian Schwinger, a terrifically talented theoretical physicist, he spent most of the war here at MIT working on radar. He said many times after the war that he learned an enormous amount from working so closely with engineers. He, by his lights, had come in very cocky. Physicists are often very cocky, and Schwinger was no exception.
He said, “We know all about the laws of electricity and magnetism. We know what makes waves propagate. We know all of that stuff. We have these beautiful equations in our beautiful text books.”
And, that was true. But, applying those beautiful equations to real world situations where you can’t assume that everything has beautiful symmetric geometries where there are all kinds of messy surfaces to worry about, that’s the engineer’s world.
Schwinger, by his lights, got a very quick education that the beautiful first principals, mathematically tight derived equations in our textbooks—those are immensely important, but that’s not always the whole story. So to put those into action, to do something with those that would be useful, he had to learn many of these kind of tricks of the engineers. That meant things like worrying about sort of overall flow of electricity, not trying to calculate the flow from first principals. We often assign homework problems for our students—calculate how will electricity flow through this or that kind of idealized circuit. Engineers shook their heads. You don’t have that idealized circuit. You have this messy, crazy thing which has been done you know because it will do this great effect in the end.
Schwinger had to learn how do this kind of input/output as opposed to really kind of first principals beautiful derivations. And, I think we could multiply examples like that—dozens and dozens of other people trained in basic sciences and basic mathematics who suddenly were learning the kind of close enough, good enough, get it done, move on kind of approach of engineers, which can lead to great effects.
Again, one wants to have a kind of balance of basic research on which one can expect to tinker and get a certain outcome. And also, sometimes you frankly just have to tinker. Those were relationships that were not very common before World War II, at least in American science. These were people who were trained separately, housed in different academic departments. They might not ever even bump into each other on campus. And, the kind of hot house of war threw them into projects with immensely pressured timelines where they had to learn how to work together.
Kelly: Great. Just because these are two icons of the Manhattan Project, if you could talk about the relationships between Ernest Lawrence on the one hand and Robert Oppenheimer.
Kaiser: Another good example of teamwork that spanned completely different styles or approaches to research came from two Berkley colleagues—Robert Oppenheimer who went on to lead the Los Alamos laboratory during World War II, and then his Berkley colleague Ernest Lawrence who helped invent the modern techniques in accelerating particles and even won a Nobel Prize by the time World War II broke out.
Lawrence was a master with his hands and he could make these devices just dance and sing. I mean, he was absolutely the tinkerer’s tinkerer. He could design devices and he had a kind of ambition to make them always bigger, always bigger, always bigger. Lawrence was pursuing big science long before that became the norm.
Oppenheimer was again the kind of theorist’s theorist. He was trained in Europe. He was trained very beautiful, very formal mathematical physics. He could do sort of wizardry with his calculations, but was frankly not a very hands-on sort of person. That became clear early in his undergraduate studies when he would break everything in laboratory and that kind of thing, like many theory students would.
So between them, again, Lawrence and Oppenheimer were able to find ways to work together to build on each other’s strengths. Oppenheimer was able to clarify certain ways to make Lawrence’s accelerators grow larger and larger. Certain kinds of unexpected effects would start to hamper the performance machines until people realize there are good basic physics, theoretical reasons to think about why these effects are cropping up now. We can now see them coming, head them off, and design bigger machines.
So, there was a need for them to work together and that carried over well into World War II. Lawrence was able to use his accumulated expertise in big machinery, making big grandiose things work, making them work efficiently—troubleshooting them. And, Oppenheimer was able to use his kind of synoptic view of worlds of knowledge that few individuals had the capacity to really master the way he did to really coordinate very different groups within this sort of sprawling laboratory at Los Alamos. So, they both had enormously important strengths that came to bear during the Manhattan Project.
One of the things that Ernest Lawrence was developing well before World War II in his Berkley setting were large teams. He was building large machines and that went hand in hand with larger and larger teams. And the teams, he realized quickly, had to have many types of expertise. They were building huge atom smashers—huge for their day at least. So, that meant he needed experts in magnets. He needed experts in ceramics, in sort of what we now call material science. He needed experts in electrical engineering and he needed experts in both theoretical and experimental physics. No individual had all that expertise at his or her fingertips. Lawrence would craft these teams and really craft a structure, a teamwork structure, which simply was not sort of the norm in American science before that time.
Oppenheimer had been a professor of physics at Berkley. He was a colleague of Ernest Lawrence’s before the war. Oppenheimer saw at close hand the kind of synergies that could occur when you had these teams of many types of specialists working toward one common goal. Get them all in the room together, get them to agree on what the overall goal should be, and then let them work out how each component could really kind of move the whole project forward. Oppenheimer was deeply impressed by this and in some sense sort of absorbed that model and brought that with him when he began to set up the Los Alamos laboratory early in World War II.
Sure. Going back to the 1920’s when Ernest Lawrence had his early ambitions to build bigger and bigger and bigger atom smashers—particle accelerators. This was an era before large scale research had any sort of obvious patron or anyone who would support it. The federal government was not involved in this sort of research. So, Ernest Lawrence and his brother John, who was focused on medicine and health, realized that they could both accomplish some of Ernest’s goals in physics and support this project by having spinoffs—by working with partners who were not interested frankly in the esoteric of nuclear forces the way Ernest Lawrence was. But, who could see the benefits of new medical therapies.
One of the things that Ernest could do with his accelerators was produce all kinds of beams and different radiations. With his brother John’s expertise, he realized some of these might in fact have a therapeutic impact on treating cancers. Many cancers are still treated to this day with radiation therapies. That was something that Ernest Lawrence realized he could offer to people—gain their sort of financial support and then use that to build up his accelerators for basic research in physics while also having a constant attention to hopefully quite helpful spinoffs along the way.
Lawrence was really a tremendously creative, kind of entrepreneurial character. He knew what resources he needed. He had a very clear goal in mind, and he was able to partner—in this case with his brother—to try to make this whole package sort of come together.
Kelly: That’s great. I don’t know if this is apocryphal [00:55:06] or not but I think I read that their first patient was their mother?
Kaiser: I heard that as well. I don’t know if that’s the case, but heard that. That’s right.
Kelly: Such a good story.
Kaiser: He was very good at public relations as well. He knew this would be a great story. He knew how to get the name out there.
Kelly: Do you want to just say it just in case it’s true.
Kaiser: Yeah, right. So a common story is that Ernest and John Lawrence, when they were trying to work out routines to use radiation therapies to treat cancers that their first patient was actually their own mother, which again shows perhaps a great loyalty on behalf of both sons, but also a kind of savviness on Ernest Lawrence’s part to say well, this would clearly make good press. He had to get people excited about his new endeavor and he could help get the word out there.
Yeah, over the last several years, MIT has launched a number of initiatives which in some sense have a similar kind of grand ambition and goal to bring lots of types of people together, from different specialties—different departments, different disciplines, different forms of training—and have them work towards sorts of projects that could really have enormous benefit for people all over the world. There’s a vast multidisciplinary project on energy. We clearly have enormous energy concerns in the world, not just in this country. How do we balance fossil fuel usage? Very real concerns about climate change, all types of alternative energies, which have their own strengths and weaknesses.
What does it take to figure out sort of the energy system? It’s an enormously complicated problem involving scientists and engineers and social scientists and humanists. It takes everyone putting all hands on deck. That’s now been almost a decade or so of a concerted infrastructure at MIT to plug these people together, people who have had interest in parts of this enormous puzzle from all different areas of campus and say well here’s a way to make sure they can find each other and really, hopefully spark some of those collaborations that otherwise might sort of be too easy to miss if everyone has their head in their own direction.
Likewise, huge efforts in bioinformatics combining basic bench top research in biology with the huge advances in computer science, in Big Data, in electronic data processing on an enormous scale, and other efforts again in neuroscience, memory research, cancer research. There’s a pattern of trying to build systems, build structures in which all kinds of people can come in and try to contribute towards one longer-term goal. Trying to not overly direct, not that everyone has to work on these things, but people had interests and real passions in parts of these big, complicated projects. Here’s a way to bring them together and try to get complementary skills all brought to the same table.
MIT has been trying to work out many of these kinds of kind of large, multidisciplinary, kind of multiyear projects. Many of them are flourishing here on campus today.
Kelly: Interesting, very interesting. In a way, there’s some irony in the way that Oppenheimer brought together and assisted upon this colloquium.
Kelly: Because, that was a major source of information for some of the spies.
Kelly: Do you want to talk about that?
Kaiser: One of the really fascinating aspects of the Manhattan Project and Los Alamos in particular—the central scientific laboratory for the entire project—was this tradeoff, the tension between secrecy and classification. Clearly, information could not be allowed to travel very far or wide. Yet, many of the scientists really kind of chaffed at what felt like a very unscientific approach to sharing information. Many of the scientists were in the habit of frankly talking all the time. That’s how they felt they learned was talking very freely in open-ended brainstorming sessions with their colleagues, with their students, with newcomers.
So, I think a real kind of master stroke, a brilliant maneuver that Oppenheimer put in place originally over the objections of some of the military leaders like General Groves—though they eventually came to work it out—was to have a weekly colloquium at Los Alamos for at least all people of a certain kind of training level. Not every single person on the mesa could join, but it was open to wide groups of people where there could be some degree of sharing across the otherwise very carefully separated out divisions.
In fact, if you look back at the organization charts for the laboratory, the organization chart is a circle—which is sort of funny. You wouldn’t see that very often. It was not meant to be these fields building like a pyramid on these fields and so on. It was literally a circle because the expectation was there should be sort of spindles connecting every possible group with every other group. Now, how would those connections be made, Oppenheimer successfully argued, unless at least some members of those groups were able to be in a room together on a regular basis and say you know I’m stuck on this. I’m curious about that. Or, we found this curious thing.
The colloquium became an enormously important arena for at least the leadership of these different groups to be able to really kind of hang out and share ideas and express concerns. Whereas, otherwise the impulse had been among some of the leaders to sort of keep all the divisions really sort of separated so that no one person could gain too much information about the project as a whole.
There were concerns, as we now know quite legitimate concerns, about espionage. So, one worry was if you let lots of people have access to all of the information, could any one of them sort of take it and give it to people who shouldn’t have it? Some efforts towards that, in fact, did happen during the war as became clear. Nonetheless, Oppenheimer, and I think many of his colleagues, agreed that the opportunity to really make enormous progress by having smart people in the room who could have kind of unfettered discussions—the projects simply could not succeed without that kind of colloquium format built in.
Kelly: That’s what they felt. What do you feel?
Kaiser: I think that’s almost certainly true. I think each group was faced with tasks that were never tried before. Every single group had to do things that no one was actually really an expert in. No one had really done this thing before, this one aspect of their charge, of their goal. I would imagine that it would have been enormously difficult to make progress if each group was really not allowed to kind of share ideas or frankly ask for tips or just brainstorm with very smart people from across the table. I think that kind of collaboration is immensely important in all kinds of research in science and technology.
Kelly: The TV series called “Manhattan” of course is interested in keeping its viewership up. They do that by making this hugely drama filled. It’s not hard because of the pressure of World War II. Everyone feels that tension.
But they also create this storyline that there were two groups in great competition, one against the other. One was pursing the thin man bomb, the gun type bomb for the plutonium, and the other implosion. But, it’s I think a construct of the dramatist rather than the reality.
But nonetheless, it’s hard for people to not be competitive with one another. So, how was that dealt with do you suppose?
Kaiser: There was great, great competition at Los Alamos during the war. There was obviously a tremendously shared sense of purpose. This was wartime. It looked immensely scary if Hitler and the Nazis were indeed to be unstoppable. There was in some sense agreement on why they were there, at least certainly in the early years of this very intense project. Nonetheless, these were a collection of very, very bright, very ambitious, and in some cases very ego filled personalities. I think there’s no doubt that there was very steep competition individually to stand out. Their group should stand out vis-à-vis some other group.
And even in the kind of panic moments, more than just a moment, when certain designs for how to make let’s say a plutonium weapon actually detonate and not fizzle out. When it became clear that the assembly mechanism for a plutonium weapon, that people assume they could do to make it look just like a uranium weapon, to basically shoot one subcritical mass portion into another. The time scale simply wouldn’t allow that to work for the plutonium and it had too large a spontaneous fission rate. It just would fizzle out. It wouldn’t make a usable weapon.
That came as a great, great surprise to people at Los Alamos, and not a happy surprise. They thought they knew what they had to do and they just had to get it done. Now, the whole program and research and development looked really lost. There was some very strongly minded people who said we should just keep at it and we’ll get it to work. Others said the whole orientation is wrong. You have to listen to us and try something brand-new. There were plenty of shouting matches and plenty of late nights sweating it out.
There’s no doubt that there was intense competition. Feelings were hurt. Pressures were high. Here, I think again, people like Robert Oppenheimer played a role beyond his knowledge of physics or beyond his acumen at arranging the colloquium. I think he had commanded the respect of the various groups and he could walk in and broker things and keep people focused on the main goals and not only let things break down into quite understandable kind of personality conflicts. I think Oppenheimer commanded a kind of respect among all of the different factions and all the different specialists that rose even above his own attainments in physics itself. He had a knack for how to get this very fast growing coagulation of strong personalities to hold, to hold at least long enough for that wartime project.
One of the greatest surprises of World War II, or one of the big surprises at any case, was that Robert Oppenheimer could play this role so effectively as scientific director of the Los Alamos laboratory. He had, unlike Ernest Lawrence, never led a large group of many different components and teams. He was a consummate theoretical physicist beautifully trained in mathematical physics, which at that point was still often seen as kind of a single person’s lonely pursuit.
It wasn’t like he had 50 people helping him in the room as he did his calculations. It was kind of a personal task. He was a beloved teacher, but still a kind of you know lonesome individual with a gathering around him. He was not an organizational wizard. Or, at least there was no evidence of that at all. He also had wide ranging interest well beyond physics in Berkley in the 30’s. Some of those would come back to haunt him later. He was very interested in politics and worldly affairs. He was very interested in poetry and in religious thinking. His interests were more of a kind of individual renaissance person rather than an Ernest Lawrence kind of disciplined and organization and team management.
Yet, Oppenheimer seems to have absorbed enough of those lessons from people like Ernest Lawrence in the 30’s that during the war he really could somehow tap on those other skills that he had not had in any great evidence before the war.
In wartime Los Alamos, the living conditions were actually fairly primitive. This had been a boy’s school that was taken over very quickly and was not a kind of five star hotel by any measure. And yet, there were some fairly senior personnel there as well as lots of very young people. Before too long, there emerged something called Bathtub Row, which is where the more senior leadership of the program were housed. It wasn’t merely dormitories. They were often families. So, this was kind of the elite row, such as it was. It was nicknamed Bathtub Row because those houses actually had their own bathtubs, which was a real rarity. This was really quite primitive living.
Bathtub Row included, of course, Robert and Kitty Oppenheimer, the director of the laboratory, and some of his sort of inner circle—people like Hans and Rose Bethe. Hans was in charge of the theoretical physics division at Los Alamos, a very eminent physicist who had been trained in Europe and had come over, fleeing the Nazis in the 30’s. He was by that point a senior professor at Cornell University and then helped really run all of Los Alamos. So, he and Rose had their own bathtub on Bathtub Row.
Another member of that cohort was George Kistiakowsky, who was a physical chemist. Kistiakowsky had been working on things like conventional explosives that had to detonate just so that they could create an inward, directed shock wave for this implosion device. So he and his wife had earned a bathtub on Bathtub Row.
Ernie McMillan, who was Ernest Lawrence’s right-hand figure at Berkley before the war, had helped designed and scale up these massive particle accelerators. He was also a member of that inner circle. So, these were folks who were helping advise Oppenheimer and helping run their individual divisions in this kind of large laboratory.
So part of the Manhattan Project was a British delegation. It was an Allied project and they were both British and Canadian and US-based researchers. The British actually had been, as with radar, they had been ahead of the game—certainly ahead of the Americans—in thinking about the implications of nuclear fission, possible wartime weapons or devices or bombs that could be made. There were at the time top secret calculations done by British researchers on what would the critical mass be? How much enriched uranium would one need to build a runaway nuclear explosion, to build a bomb?
There was all kinds of knowledge and expertise on a fairly small scale before the Manhattan Project really got up and running. And then, many of those figures were able to come over and work at various sites across the United States during the war. James Chadwick, who was famous for discovering the neutron—an experimental physicist who brought his expertise. Rudolf Peierls himself an émigré to Britain from Central Europe and then he came over and further helped the war effort here in the United States. And, as we now know, they also brought people like Klaus Fuchs who was another German émigré who had naturalized in Britain and then came over to work both at Oak Ridge with the efforts to separate isotopes of uranium and eventually made his way to Los Alamos as well. That’s relevant because as we now know, Fuchs was sending information to his Soviet handlers throughout the war and continued to do so even after he went back to Britain, working on the British nuclear program, throughout the late 1940’s. So, many folks came over from Britain as part of the Manhattan Project’s sort of larger team.
It’s sort of amazing in hind sight how quickly this whole prospect of nuclear weapons seemed to unfold. Accidental discovery of nuclear fission happened in a German laboratory near Berlin in very late 1938. Within just a few months, Europe had descended into war. This was right as war was about to break out where the notion of releasing energy via slitting a nucleus was first sort of hashed out.
News of that spread very accidentally away from the continent and reached the United States partly because young researchers who would work with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen swore him to secrecy. He was scheduled to take a steamer, a boat ride from Europe to the United States. He arrived early in 1939. He couldn’t help but blab to everyone he saw. I mean, this was not how the news was supposed to spread. Immediately, in Germany, in Britain, in the United States, in Japan as we now know, and soon in the Soviet Union. As soon as people heard that a nucleus could be split, that there was a release of energy by that fission process, everyone realized there are weapons to be made here. The world was clearly careening toward war. And, this was not just another ho-hum scientific discovery. Everyone knew that this would have worldly implications within days and weeks.
We now know that every major power started its own nuclear weapons project within weeks of each other, certainly within months of each other. Many of them stalled out. Many of them made very little progress as we now know. Others, like the Manhattan Project you know, massive, massive investment of effort ultimately succeeded in building these real weapons. But, it’s an interesting thought experiment. What if nuclear fission had been discovered either five years earlier or five years later? Let’s say it was discovered ho-hum you know, in 1933. The world was still a dangerous place. Dramatic developments in Central Europe with the rise of the Nazis, but would that have been drop everything and work on this? It’s not so clear. Certainly, if it was discovered five years later, you know, who knows what world we would be living in today.
So, it’s sort of these accidents of history, the contingencies, needn’t have been that way that [Otto] Hahn and [Fritz] Strassmann with inputs from Lise Meitner [01:20:01]—who had already been forced to flee because of her Jewish background—that these stumbling blocks of basic research could sometimes lead very, very rapidly to very worldly, very applied outcomes.
From the earliest days of work on nuclear weapons, many people feared they were already part of an arms race. Weapons were born in the context of many nations trying to get them—or at least that was certainly the great fear, the great motivating concern for many, many people working on the Manhattan Project.
Nuclear fission had been discovered in Germany. Some of the world’s greatest nuclear physicists were still in Germany, people like Werner Heisenberg [01:21:27] and many, many others. Many of the émigrés who had fled central Europe as well as their American colleagues who had studied in Europe before the hostilities, many of them who were convinced that Germany was hell-bent on any weapon. They made these horrible, horrible, devastating rockets and they clearly had industrial capacity to build large-scale weapons of war.
A large part of the concern from the start was that the knowledge of the nucleus was not restricted to any one nation or one group of people. The way nature works at its most fundamental is simply not going to be held within only one territory. So, many, many people went to work with great fervor on the Allied project in the fears they were already in a race against German efforts to build a nuclear bomb as well.
It turns out, there had been kind of lackluster German efforts for the bomb, as we now know. It became clear later. But certainly, that was not clear in 1940 or `42, or frankly even in 1945. So, the notion of nuclear weapons and an arms race in a competition, the notions were kind of born together. Some of the earliest calculations in Britain were geared towards making an allied nuclear weapon precisely to help deter Hitler from using his own on the assumption that he either had or would soon have one. The notion of deterrence, of nuclear deterrence—one side needs to get a weapon to stop the other side from using theirs—again, that’s a concept that we often associate with the Cold War, say the United States and the Soviet Union. But, the notion was actually born years earlier in a different context, different concerns about who would or who could develop weapons of their own.
Deterrence thinking has gone through many changes in the interim—the shift from types of weapons as well as types of delivery systems. In some sense, we can tell the story of the Cold War in these kind of changes in both what can be thrown at each other and how they can be thrown, some pretty dramatic changes over the years after World War II. But, that basic notion of trying to find some way to live with the atom and sometimes we’re with it even to this day.
Kelly: How do you think the fact that nuclear science and nuclear energy was introduced as a bomb has affected the pursuit of nuclear energy for peace purposes?
Kaiser: Words can be very tricky. Nuclear research very rapidly became taken up with and associated with weapons, nuclear weapons, for quite understandable reasons. That was indeed one of the most early and dramatic demonstrations of our knowledge of nuclear forces and what holds the nuclei together.
In the very early years after World War II, especially in the United States, all things nuclear were often seen in a very positive light. It was seen that these weapons had a dramatic impact on the course of the war. And then when the extent of some of these weapons became clear or the weapons themselves grew in far greater destructive power, led to things like greater appreciation for radioactive fallout and all kinds of problems with these kinds of devices. Then the word nuclear began to have actually quite a negative connotation, understandably.
And, the word nuclear applies to many types of things. People who were not working on weapons per se have had to contend with the connotations of the word nuclear, again, for good or for ill for many years. Nuclear power for a civilian energy production is still very controversial. It does have relations, possible attenuated relations with weapons projects. You want to make sure there are clear divisions between weapons and power generation.
But even just at the level of terminology, playing with the nucleus does not make many people feel comfortable. A more prosaic example, in physics we call a certain phenomenon nuclear magnetic resonance or NMR because we’re spinning the flips of a nucleus, the way a nucleus spins, in a magnetic field. And, this has enormous implications for medical imaging. Most people have heard of this as MRI, which is magnetic resonance imaging. It’s the same thing. But, to make sure people don’t get the wrong impression, the word nuclear has been dropped altogether. So, we can see the impact of the kind of connotations of these words even to this day.
Kelly: What role does failure have in success basically?
Kaiser: Failure is a tricky thing. You know, we try to avoid failure. We don’t like thinking of ourselves as failures. Yet, I think it’s fair to say that many, many of the great lasting breakthroughs that we might think of, they’re the outcome of a long line of failures. Often these are productive failures. I like talking about this notion of a production mistake. Most of us make mistakes all the time. That’s okay. That’s kind of what we should be doing. Some physicists would joke that their job was to make as many mistakes as quickly as possible. That’s a nice sort of way to put it.
But, we don’t want to make just any old mistake. We want to make productive mistakes where figuring out what went wrong will itself lead to really key insights. I think when we look at the kind of trail of failures that lead up to some of the important breakthroughs, I think those are the kinds of failures that we tend to find. Failures aren’t from being merely clumsy or not thinking carefully or being too brisk, those can lead to failure as well. But rather, they’re failures because of a certain kind of mental block. We had one set of assumptions. Those had worked before, and we hadn’t seen well, those actually are hidden assumptions. We hadn’t realized we were still thinking this way instead of that way. Sometimes these failures have the very important role of dislodging, taken for granted assumptions—making people step back and reassess. Failures can actually be a remarkably good thing. That’s true in basic research, in basic physics, I think it’s true in engineering projects as well. Learning to learn from our mistakes is probably the best way to move forward.
Kelly: Again we’re looking at the attributes of successful, innovative enterprises, whether they’re universities or in the private sector. And, a “failure” is an important thing. You’re working for a company that has a budget and a deadline and you encounter pressure. How do successful firms reconcile this?
Kaiser: To be honest, I don’t know. I would imagine it’s so different in the kind of corporate or for profit sector when one has to be beholden to shareholders. We hear about concerns about short-term profits. You know, I have the luxury of frankly not having to worry about that. We have different time horizons in most university research. We certainly have to worry about endless cycles of grant writing, but the grant writing is often done with the expectation that one is chipping away at what should be a long-term goal. So, I don’t have a good answer. I don’t know actually.
Kelly: Can you talk about the role of persistence in science and engineering—sort of a flip of what we were saying?
Kaiser: Right. Because many things will fail much of the time, it’s easy to get discouraged. People work very, very hard and don’t like to see things blow up, either real or metaphorically. But, to really see things through, it does require this sort of stick-to-it attitude. Not to keep beating your head against the brick wall, but hopefully to creatively adjust, to stick with it and say, “What do I need to tweak this time that I didn’t think of last time?”
So, it’s enormously important to be able to have that kind of temperament to say, “Things will go wrong an awful lot, but they will hopefully go wrong in the service of getting them right.” That’s something that has got to be a longer-term journey.
There was a hay day of industrial research in the United States that people usually date between say the 1930’s and the 1970’s—the middle decades of the 20th century. This was a time when amazing laboratories were being built or expanded upon from private companies, companies like Bell Telephone with their famous Bell labs, the jewel of their research enterprise, or Westinghouse or General Electric and right on down the line. Sprawling, well-funded, industrial laboratories often with very close ties to university partners and a kind of revolving door of students being trained here, working there, going back to the university afterwards and so on.
Many of the managers of these industrial laboratories in the 1950’s were given a free enough hand by the upper management to let their own researchers take a lot of risks. This was not meant to be only short-term or only for the immediate kind of funding cycle. There is case after case of Nobel Prize worthy basic research coming out of places like Bell Laboratories because the researchers were given time. It was understood that they should be able to pursue their curiosity and that some things are worth being curious about that might not lead to the better mousetrap tomorrow. The hope would be that some of what was learned, either even technique with instrumentation let alone more abstract or basic knowledge. These are things that might eventually, in unsurprising ways, in ways one can’t script or project on a firm timeline, these will nonetheless become the basis for the next big successful thing for the company.
IBM, I mean all the big giants of American enterprise used to have I think a far greater tradition, a far greater leniency for risk-taking for longer horizons for actually wanting their staff researchers to think big, think beyond the immediate concern at hand. Now, those laboratories are very expensive. In fact, they don’t always pay off in a sort of immediate way. There are all kinds of pressures on these companies. We can see the kind of ebbs and flows of industrial research in the United States over the 20th Century, kind of reading responses to politics, to the shape of the market more broadly. There’s not only one pattern.
But, when these managers were interviewed back in what we now know as the hay day, that was a common theme of theirs. If you could afford it, you should let your researchers have, in some sense, a greater deal of leeway than I think people otherwise would have predicted or would have recognized. Precisely because they wanted risk taking, unexpected kind of turns here and there. I think we can see that came along with a great deal of success.
Kelly: Interesting. If that hay day ended in the 70’s and here we are forty years later, presumably there’s less of that risk taking. Or, how would you characterize the next 40 years?
Kaiser: Well, I think there’s lots of risk taking. I think it’s not necessarily done in the types of places it was done in the 1950’s or 60’s. So, this is the rise of the kind of small startup, you know kind of venture capital backed small firm. Rather than seeing that being you know uniquely in-house for the largest firms. I think innovation is still happening all over the place. It’s just happening in sort of different niches. The ways it can be pushed along, they don’t look the same today as they did in 1965.
Kelly: Walter Isaacson has a subtitle for his new book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. So, what is it about scientific innovators? Are they all hackers or geniuses or geeks? I mean, I haven’t read the book and I don’t know if you have. I think it’s just coming out now.
Kaiser: I think, like in any endeavor, there are all kinds of sort of styles and personality types in science and engineering. There are all kinds of artists and all kinds of novelists and all kinds of business people. There are all kinds of scientists. I think frankly this kind of scientific ecosystem requires lots of different styles. There certainly is a necessary place for the kind of hacker, for the iconoclast. What I think is more interesting about that kind of description, it’s not someone who says let’s just break all the rules for the sake of breaking rules. These are people who tend to be exquisitely well trained, very disciplined. They’ve done all their homework and they’ve done all their problem sets. They beat their head against the wall late at night because their laboratory experiment wouldn’t work. These are not people who say “I don’t like it, so I won’t bother.”
There’s a way of harnessing that very carefully honed, disciplined, skill-based approach with the kind of openness to questions that might seem like they’re from left field. That’s really tricky to get that balance. You don’t want people only with their head in the clouds who can’t run with things when they have the idea. And frankly, we don’t only want people who are very good at just doing what they’ve learned to do already. I mean there’s a place for that, but that shouldn’t be all that there is. So, I think that this figure that people like, Isaacson has picked up on. As an important ingredient, we don’t want only that, we don’t either extreme, but someone who can take the hard work and really the discipline. You’ve got to work and work and work and do your homework kind of thing. And then, somehow tilt that toward questions that seem like they really came you know out of the blue. I think there you can see these kind of very fun unexpected kind of synergies.
I think the Manhattan Project grew to be so large that it did have a pretty good representative sample of many of these types of styles. So, someone like the very young Richard Feynman who was renowned in physics later after the war—he was a very young man during World War II—and yet had this kind of iconoclastic. He was very glad not to take someone else’s word for it. He was glad to tell them he wasn’t going to take their word for it—which some of them didn’t always like—and to try to figure things out sort of in his own terms. He is certainly someone who I think exemplifies this sort of extremely hard working, get all the skills right, do all his homework, get his skills up to speed and then apply them in ways that other people couldn’t even see coming.
So, Feynman—I think partly why he’s still so beloved among geeks and hackers to this day is because he seemed to embody that ethos of sort of disciplined, sort of zaniness—disciplined first, but then sort of not be hemmed in on any other person’s train of thought. So, the project had people like Feynman and other exquisitely gifted but maybe more kind of straightforward thinkers who could push their parts along as well. Again, you needed all these people kind of bouncing off each other.
I wrote this book called How the Hippies Saved Physics. It was meant to be a playful and ironic title. But, it was about a gaggle of people, about ten main folks, who actually were coming of age in science as that first wave coming out of World War II had finally kind of run its course. They were young people in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when the assumptions that had driven sort of the growth in the sciences in the United States after World War II really kind of skidded to a halt.
As we now know in hindsight, it was a temporary halt. But the halt was very real it its day—around 1970-72. Funding was drying up. Opportunities were drying up. It was not at all clear that the federal government should support basic research the way it had been before. This was a hard, hard time to grow up in the field. So these folks were growing up exactly out of sync with some of their own heroes, who had been kind of riding that wave after World War II and doing enormously impressive physics along the way with seemingly endless resources.
These folks that I was writing about went to school in the years after Sputnik, you know great Cold War priorities to get more and more people to learn science and technology. And their main fault, which was no fault of their own, was to graduate sort of when the bottom fell out. So, they were experiencing a very different kind of landscape for the profession than what they had gone into the field thinking about.
Nonetheless, they were trained from some of the nation’s most elite, prestigious programs in physics. They had PhDs from great, great programs. And, they had to make their own way. They kind of carved out a parallel universe for themselves. They had to find their own way to support their research, their own way to sort of meet and hash out their ideas, their own way to disseminate their findings. They built a kind of parallel universe mimicking the functions that they had grown up knowing in the kind of standard way to do physics. But, physics wasn’t going to be the same for their generation.
They were enormously passionate about the grand mysteries of modern physics—quantum mechanics and sort of strange behaviors of the microscopic realm that had no obvious analog to the sort of world we see around us today. And, they beat their heads against that time and time again. They failed often. They would often have fun in their failing because they realized they were learning something along the way. They took that enormous collection of hard work and discipline and problem sets and all the hard work of their training all the way through their PhDs and they began sort of asking questions that the main field had left behind. They were also open to all kinds of ideas or questions or notions that did not have a large backing.
Then, what was really fun for me to trace through was seeing how their own kind of playful, sometimes quite zany interactions with themselves and with others could kind of spark and could instigate some new lines of thought that we now again take for granted today. These folks were combining again the sort of hard work. They knew how to calculate. They had done their homework. And, they refused to be limited to one way of pursing their questions. They were open to new ideas while bringing their skill set with them. You know, they had a pretty good time along the way.
Kelly: It’s interesting when you talk about how people have done their homework and so forth it reminds me of Malcom Gladwell and the 10,000 hours.
Kaiser: Yes, right. That’s right. I think there’s something to that. I don’t know if it’s actually 10,000, but you know we can’t only have our heads in the clouds. We probably don’t only want to be sort of stuck very narrowly pursuing the things you know, like we had just done before. It’s getting that balance right. Part of that is getting the right collection of people in the room to kind of scatter off of and push and nudge. I think that’s where we can hope to find some new thinking.
Kelly: Where do you think the science and technology is going next? Do you have any prescription or prediction for the future or how we should be building or could be building toward more wonderful discoveries in science and technology?
Kaiser: I don’t know. It’s always hard to predict the future. Well, it’s easy to predict. It’s hard to do it correctly. I don’t have any confidence in my own sort of best guesses. Certainly there are areas that I find deeply exciting today and many colleagues too. I’m still enamored with astrophysics and cosmology and what can we learn about the earliest moments of our universe partly based on new instruments and new data, partly based on new thinking about some older ideas.
Certainly sciences of the brain, of consciousness, of neurosciences—that’s clearly growing like gang busters. There’s other kind of fields that span traditional disciplines like nanotechnology, which are part physics, part chemistry, part engineering and many things—part biology now. I think there are a lot of grand intellectual challenges. I think a lot of them probably have to do with things like complexity. What are new behaviors that are not just the sum of their parts? What behaviors emerge from getting lots of weird different things together? That sometimes calls for a different type of approach than other highly successful approaches with which we’ve learned about—atoms and nuclei and parts therein.
So, I think there’s no shortage of exciting new questions to be pursuing.