Saturday, December 10, 2011

Nano book recommendation

My colleague in Rice's history department, Cyrus Mody, has a new book out called Instrumental Community, about the invention and spread of scanned probe microscopy (and microscopists) that's a very interesting read. If you've ever wondered how and why the scanning tunneling microscope and atomic force microscope took off, and why related ideas like the topografiner (pdf) did not, this is the book for you. It also does a great job of giving a sense of the personalities and work environments at places like IBM Zurich, IBM TJ Watson, IBM Almaden, and Bell Labs.

There are a couple of surprising quotes in there. Stan Williams, these days at HP Labs, says that the environment at Bell Labs was so cut-throat that people would sabotage each others' experiments and steal each others' data. Having been a postdoc there, that surprised me greatly, and doesn't gibe with my impressions or stories I'd heard. Any Bell Labs alumni readers out there care to comment?

The book really drives home what has been lost with the drastic decline of long-term industrial R&D in the US. You can see it all happening in slow motion - the constant struggle to explain why these research efforts are not a waste of shareholder resources, as companies become ever more focused on short term profits and stock prices.

4 comments:

Don Monroe said...

Concerning Bell Labs research environment, that comment sounds off the wall to me (1985-2002). Certainly there was competition. I know of one researcher who was rather secretive, fearing other Bell Labs researchers might try to scoop him. But sabotage and theft? Seems unlikely.

Doug Natelson said...

My thoughts exactly. Given how much gossip I heard as a postdoc about past stuff at Bell, I can't believe I wouldn't have heard stories about data theft and sabotage if it had been going on to any significant level. (I did hear stories about a janitor that got let go for turning knobs at night on lab equipment, for example.)

rob said...

when i did my grad work we had a janitor that got fired for peeing in a lab sink every night. also one that got fired for taking the scrap metal from outside the shop and selling it.

Cyrus said...

Doug - thanks so much for the recommendation! On the question of how accurate Stan Williams' depiction is, I'd be very interested to hear from BTL alumni as well. It wouldn't surprise me if Stan is exaggerating or speaking metaphorically about data theft. His comments about competition among groups within IBM and within BTL were at the extreme end of what interviewees told me, but he certainly wasn't alone in conveying a sense of fevered competition that led to bad blood between groups working on similar projects. I should note that Stan's comments were my second choice - I had a different set of great quotes about feuding among BTL staff (though not data theft), but for perhaps obvious reasons the interviewee asked not to be quoted.