For whom Bell tolled
I read a rather ordinary press release last week about a consumer product – a good product likely to have a good market. A product, nevertheless, that like so many others, we never knew we needed. According to the release, the product was based upon research from Bell Labs.
There are so many products based upon research from Bell Labs, that this is not news, but it reminded me of the Lab’s history.
I can think of no other corporate research facility quite like Bell Labs at its prime. The world we know would be a much different, much poorer, place without the basic research that built the fame of Bell Labs. Can you imagine a world without the transistor, the lasers, information theory, UNIX, the C programming language or the mobile phone?
Many of the biggest questions science is struggling to answer today – the sort of questions that prompted countries around the world to invest US$ 9 billion in the EU’s CERN atomic research facility’s LHC super atom smasher – were first raised because Bell Labs ‘invented’ radio astronomy.
In 1931, Bell Labs’ Karl Jansky investigated the causes of the hissing, the static that plagued long-distance shortwave communications and found something wholly unexpected – the centre of our galaxy was emitting powerful radio waves
This discovery gave birth to radio astronomy and paved the way for the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics awarded to two Bell Labs researchers, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, for their discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation – the radio remnants of the Big Bang.
Bell labs researchers won five other Nobel prizes as well:
- Clinton Davisson shared the 1937 Nobel Prize in Physics for demonstrating the wave nature of matter;
- Philip W. Anderson shared the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on magnetic materials vital to the development of electronic switching and memory devices in today’s computers;
- Steven Chu, shared the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics for cooling and trapping atoms with laser light;
- Horst Stormer, Robert Laughlin, and Daniel Tsui, won the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery of the fractional quantum Hall effect; and
- Perhaps most important in terms of the world we live in, 1956 John Bardeen, Walter H. Brattain, and William Shockley were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for inventing the transistor.
Can you imagine the world today without the transistor?
The list of brilliant Bell Labs researchers, the list of prizes, of truly important scientific breakthroughs and the list of the inventions born there is far from restricted to those that won the Nobel Prize. The first workable fax machine, synchronous sound motion pictures, the first long-distance television transmission, the ‘cell’ that gives cell phones their name, the seamless handoffs between cells and many other technologies that make mobile telephony what it is, were all from the Labs. So too was Claude Shannon the father of modern cryptography and the father of information theory. The list is long, far too long to deal with here.
I never worked at Bell Labs, but I do have a very personal and long-standing attachment to the Labs.
The Chairman of the Physics Department at my New York City High School worked with William Shockley at Bell Labs during the 1940s. He was there when the transistor was invented. His stories of the research going on at the Labs, where he also served as a consultant, and his courses in solid state theory and practice, at a time when few universities taught this at an undergraduate level (observers came from as far as Japan), inspired me to study physics at the university.
To me, to my generation at school, Bell Labs was a powerful, legendary, influence. A friend’s cat was even named Jansky after the discoverer of the hissing from space – what can you expect from a nerd? Jansky hissed at everyone and everything and often came back from his nightly rounds badly clawed and bitten until, one day, may he rest in peace, he didn’t return.
Many years ago, looking for solutions to some difficult radio communications problems – now long resolved, but beyond even Bell Labs at the time – I spent a good deal of time there as a client. It was a memorable experience – work sessions with brilliant people, tours of the labs to see the latest developments, meetings with some of the best theorists of the time.
In one lab, two wires connected to a rather messy looking bunch of circuits and devices were hooked to a screen. The end of each wire was held in a clamp with a micrometer-type adjusting screw. The clamps were mounted on a workbench so the ends of the wires rested point-to-point on a glass slab. A researcher dripped a bit of colourless liquid, immersing the ends of both wires, and turned the adjusting screws until the ends of the wires were aligned within the liquid. The screen came to life and showed that a signal was flowing along the wires.
The ‘wires’ were, in fact, among the world’s very first optical fibres; a laboratory curiosity at the time. No one had yet figured out a good way to splice the ends of the fibres so they dropped a bit of liquid with the same refractive index as the fibres between the ends to make the connection. They eventually resolved the splicing problem. Twenty years ago, in 1988, Bell Labs’ TAT-8 became the first trans- Atlantic fibre optic cable.
That same day I saw the fibre demonstration, researchers in another nearby lab demonstrated one of the first experiments in Free Space Optics (FSO) using lasers to transmit data between two points. In one of the most bizarre demonstrations of explicit ‘geekness’ I have ever seen, a rather awkward researcher climbed on a chair, frantically flapped his arms and jumped through the beam to show how a bird could disrupt the signal. I grabbed and kept him from stumbling to the floor.
I could go on.
John Donne (1572-1631) wrote of the ties that bind us one to another. “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main … therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Bell Labs tolled for us all; it rang the changes of a new world, and tunes now ring from transistorised devices around the globe. Today, the bell tolls the passing of an era, not just at Bell, but at corporate facilities everywhere. The bell also celebrates the greatness of vision that looked for the unforeseeable and saw the birth of the information society – that looked for the causes of radio static, but saw galaxies and the beginnings of the universe.
And for whom did Bell toil; why it toiled for thee.
The next issue of Connect-World Latin America will be published early next month. This edition of Connect-World will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows such as: Futurecom (São Paulo, Brazil October 27th to 30th).
The theme for this issue will be Merging and converging – work, life and ICT.
The convergence of networks, technologies, devices and applications has changed our lives – even the lives of those that don’t use a computer or a cell phone – it’s inescapable. Our lives and our lifestyles have changed – lifestyles that depend upon ICT, digital lifestyles, are evolving. This is happening, not only in the world’s great cities, but everywhere reached by digital communications – anywhere a mobile phone works or a cyber café exists. The companies we work for, the companies we deal with, the governments we depend upon and the services they provide, our entertainment, our finances, our security, our health, our social networking and many other aspects of our lives have merged into the worldwide digital universe. ICTs surround us just as surely and pervasively as air.
The ICT sector created the conditions for this change, but users of every type – businesses, governments, manufacturers, individuals and so forth – are now driving the change and shaping the sector’s technological priorities, the solutions, applications and content. The more you have the more you want; the demand is insatiable
This issue of Connect-World Latin America will examine the growing impact this pervasive digitalization of our lives and lifestyles is having upon the ICT sector, businesses, government and society.
Latin America 2008 Media Pack; Click here