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A Throwback?

Tony Tyson might seem a throwback to the old ways, pursuing a fascination with no apparent relationship to Lucent’s business. But even he does not conform completely to the old Bell Labs model. While practicing his basic science, the astrophysicist has also worked on several applied projects. What’s more, while hunting cosmic dark matter, he pushed the development of charge-coupled devices for image detection and helped create novel image processing software-advances that have been incorporated into an automated fingerprint detection technology designed to replace locks, and a valuable failure analysis tool that maps the surface temperatures of semiconductors while they’re still in production.

Tyson’s work-like Alan Gelperin’s-can be taken to illustrate how Lucent’s attention to applications can pay off. Conversely, it can be used to show that companies should support unfettered science-because far-ranging studies have a way of paying dividends where they’re not always expected.

Indeed, the chief complaint from critics of the new Bell Labs is that the drive for relevance has overly constrained scientific inquiries-a strategy that will ultimately cause it to miss the kind of breakthroughs that brought the lab to glory. Many of the critics were drawn from the staff of the lab itself. Morale plummeted during the early 1990s, as the changes were implemented. Scores of veteran researchers quit; so many landed jobs at the University of California, Santa Barbara, that folks back in Murray Hill began calling the school Bell Labs West.

Former Bell Labs researcher Charles Townes, the Nobel laureate inventor of the maser and one of Arno Penzias’ instructors at Columbia, understands the reason behind the changes and doesn’t know what could have been done differently. Yet he feels that a good deal of Bell’s pioneering spirit is evaporating.
The loss is especially lamentable, he says, because more than almost any university, the labs brought world-class scientists together with experts in areas such as electronics or antenna design-producing a tremendous climate of discovery. “Bell Labs was a rather unusual and exceptional place,” notes Townes. “For a long time it could be different from other companies because it was a monopoly.” Now that it functions like any other company, he adds, “I think it’s a great loss for the country.”

While agreeing generally with Townes, Tyson says the dynamic for discovery may actually be better now than at any time since the 1950s. An increased focus on relevance has put short-term pressures on researchers and made it harder to pursue “pure” science. However, he states, “I think it’s healthy to have this tension. Otherwise you’re just sitting in the Ivory Tower doing nothing for anybody. It really does help to be immersed in the needs of the corporation at the same time you’re trying to make some new discovery. If you’re immersed in other cross streams of technology, of ideas, of demands…that’s a very rich environment for completely new ideas to spring forward.”

A third perspective comes from Penzias. He agrees with his former mentor Townes that some of Bell’s special qualities have disappeared. “There is a lot in what Charlie says, especially in the physical sciences,” he admits. “I have to say something has been lost. But that loss is not unique to industrial research. Nothing is what it used to be.” Especially not the reborn Bell Labs.

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