Letter from the Editor

Seven over 70

To complement our list of young innovators, here are several who have been at it for decades.

  • This letter appeared in the September/October 2013 issue.
  • by Jason Pontin
  • August 21, 2013

For over a decade, we’ve celebrated innovators under the age of 35. We choose to write about the young because we want to introduce you to the most promising new technologists, researchers, and entrepreneurs. But I often hear: You really think older people can’t innovate?

MIT Professor Mildred Dresselhaus

Of course they can. We meet extraordinary older innovators all the time, who after a lifetime of creativity are still solving big problems, generating wealth, or expanding our conception of what it means to be human. Below, in reverse alphabetical order, are seven innovators over the age of 70, chosen arbitrarily, because I am attracted to their lives, work, and character, and not according to the formal nomination and judging process that selected the 35 Innovators Under 35.

George Whitesides, 74, is a cofounder of more than 12 companies (including Genzyme) whose combined value is more than $20 billion, and is named on more than 50 patents. Amongst his inventions are cheap paper microfluidic chips, which can be used for diagnostic tests in the poor world. At Harvard, he runs one of the world’s most productive chemistry and materials science labs, whose objective is “to fundamentally change the paradigms of science.”

The electrical engineer Carver Mead, 79, has been responsible for an implausibly long list of innovations in microelectronics, including the first software compilation of a silicon chip. Halfway through his career, he switched his research to how animal brains compute, and established the field of neural networks. After cofounding more than 20 companies, he is only notionally retired; today, he is thinking about better ways to teach freshman physics at Caltech, where he has worked for more than 40 years, by means of a “reconceptualization of electrodynamics and gravitation.”

Barbara Liskov has been awarded both the Turing Award for her work on the programming languages and methodology that led to object-oriented programming and the John von Neumann Medal for her contributions to programming and distributed computing. At 73, she leads MIT’s Programming Methodology Group, which is exploring how to build distributed and fault-­tolerant systems that continue to work even when some of their components don’t.

The physician and biologist Leroy Hood helped create the fields of genomics and proteomics by inventing the protein sequencer, the protein synthesizer, the DNA synthesizer, and, most important of all, the automated DNA sequencer. He later founded the Institute of Systems Biology in Seattle and, at 74, is still its president; the institute seeks to understand diseases by considering human biology holistically as a “network of networks.”

Nick Holonyak invented the first practical light-emitting diode in 1962 when he was a researcher at General Electric, but his innovations are not limited to the replacement for the incandescent lightbulb. He also created the electronic element of the light dimmer switch and the laser diode, which is used in DVD players and cell phones. ­Holonyak, 84, is still a full-time researcher at the University of Illinois, where he works on quantum-dot lasers, which could be used for a variety of novel display and medical technologies.

The nanotechnologist Mildred Dresselhaus, 82, was the author of 39 papers in 2012 and most days is in her office at MIT by 6:30 a.m. Her research involves the physics and properties of carbon nanomaterials, including nanotubes and graphene. Among her many accomplishments, Dresselhaus was the first scientist to exploit the thermoelectric effect at the nanoscale, which could allow for devices that harvest energy from temperature differences in materials that conduct electricity. 

Stewart Brand’s contributions to technology have been as an intellectual and founder of organizations, rather than as an inventor. But Stewart (who is a friend) has been tremendously influential: he was the publisher of The Whole Earth Catalog; cofounded the first electronic community, the WELL; and is today the president of the Long Now Foundation, which promotes “slower/better thinking.” At 74, he is working on the revival of extinct species.

I’ll conclude this list with an extra name, from my own profession. Now 83, Robert Silvers has edited the New York Review of Books for more than 40 years. His is my favorite publication, because it is reliably surprising, delightful, witty, and humane. When asked why he doesn’t retire, Silvers once joked, “I don’t have a very full sense of time.” He then more seriously added that work was an extraordinary opportunity, and that “you’d be crazy not to try to make the most of it.”

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