Powell: There have been many brilliant technological ideas—videophones, flying cars, space planes, jetpacks—that have turned out to be technically possible but not useful. Do we have a good system for filtering those things out?
Gertner: Yes and no. We have capitalism—people fail and go bankrupt. Back in 2007 I was covering a lot of the funding that was pouring into green energy start-ups. And they were putting tons of money into some absolutely crazy, absolutely brilliant ideas. And I would go to these meetings that were so off-the-record the people wouldn’t even tell me the name of their company.
Powell: Did they put a bag over your head to let you into the meeting?
Gertner: It actually was a little like that: We’ll blindfold you, drive you off the side of the road in Cupertino, and tell you about our supercapacitor that is going to change the world. A lot of these ideas were fantastic. Certainly there was never the anticipation that all of them would work. But people thought some of them—battery technology, fuel cell technologies—would be workable. There was also the optimism that policy would drive the technology, that there would be a price on carbon [a carbon tax], that there would be a logical path toward making these ideas happen. But that doesn’t appear to be the case now.
Powell: Shelley, your experience with NASA is an instructive example of a collaborative era. Can you tell us about it?
Harrison: After I set up Symbol Technologies and a venture fund, this gentleman, Bob Citron, came to me in 1984, a few years after the first space shuttle mission, and said: “You know, there’s a big, empty cargo bay in the space shuttle. There’s no space for the humans. My plan is to build pressurized modules, put them in the cargo bay, and have a little tunnel going to the front end of the cabin where the astronauts are. Once they’re in orbit, we quadruple the volume where they can do experiments in microgravity.” “Wow,” I said, “that looks fantastic. Why did you come to me?” “Well, we thought maybe as an entrepreneur investor scientist, you’d like to fund this.”
I analyzed the problem and decided to invest in this company, Spacehab. With nothing more than a cartoon about what it looked like, we raised $150 million. We built the modules. NASA embraced them. It was an international effort because everybody was interested in space. Space belonged to everybody. You probably haven’t heard much about Spacehab’s role because part of the bargain was I wouldn’t say much about it. NASA in all its glory couldn’t have a little start-up company solve the problem of research in space and making the shuttles useful. Now I guess I can finally say it. But I guess I can’t go back and work with NASA again.
Powell: Maybe the final point for all of us—including funders—is that when it comes to science and technology, it’s a thin line between crazy and brilliant.
Gertner: The line is so fine that at Bell Labs, world-changing ideas like communications satellites were treated as slightly crazy. In Europe, physicist Charles Kao believed optic fibers could be the future of telecommunications. He literally went around the world to the smartest people in the world, including the smartest people at Bell Labs, who said, “Well, yeah, maybe, maybe not.” In retrospect, his idea was absolutely brilliant. But at the time the smartest scientists and electrical engineers didn’t recognize that or couldn’t see the future.
Greene: Look at quantum mechanics. It was this esoteric-sounding subject in the 1920s and 1930s. Trying to understand the structure of the atom and the way electrons evolve in time felt very distant from everyday life, very distant from anything that government should be funding, if it’s funding things that actually make a difference to our lives. But 80 years later, the fact that we have cell phones, the fact that we have all sorts of medical technology, the fact that we have personal computers, the fact that we have lasers—it all comes from a basic understanding of quantum physics. So people need to recognize that basic research doesn’t just enrich intellectual life, which is absolutely vital—it ultimately changes all our lives.
Jon Gertner is the author of The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. His stories on business, science, and society have appeared in The New York Times Magazine. He is currently an editor at Fast Company magazine.
Shelley Harrison is senior adviser and head of U.S. corporate portfolio ventures at Coller Capital. He cofounded Symbol Technologies, which received the National Medal of Technology, and was chairman and CEO of Spacehab Inc.
Michal Lipson is an associate professor at the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Cornell University. She holds several patents for photonic structures that manipulate light and has published more than 100 technical papers.
Brian Greene is a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, where he codirects the Institute for Strings, Cosmology, and Astroparticle Physics. His books include The Elegant Universe, whose companion NOVA TV special won an Emmy Award.
Corey S. Powell is the editor in chief at DISCOVER magazine.