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Silly pencil pushers! You can't KILL Physics! What's that? Oh, physics *research*. You've won this round!
August 28, 2008 4:20 AM   Subscribe

RIP Bell Labs "After six Nobel Prizes, the invention of the transistor, laser and countless contributions to computer science and technology, it is the end of the road for Bell Labs' fundamental physics research lab."
posted by Eideteker (56 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by TheophileEscargot at 4:29 AM on August 28, 2008


Having known some good people who worked there during the Lucent days, it almost seems like a mercy killing.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 4:38 AM on August 28, 2008


Alcatel-Lucent, the parent company of Bell Labs, is pulling out of basic science, material physics and semiconductor research and will instead be focusing on more immediately marketable areas such as networking, high-speed electronics, wireless, nanotechnology and software.

...all of which technologies are based on the fundamental research they themselves did in 30-50 years ago.

When asked what immediately marketable areas they would have available 30-50 years from now, a spokesman said "Durrrrrrr."
posted by DU at 4:39 AM on August 28, 2008 [19 favorites]


This is sad. Even a civilian like me grew up knowing and respecting Bell Labs.
.

Most of the scientists working in the company's fundamental physics department have been reassigned...

In other news, Alcatel-Lucent announces the creation of the worlds smartest customer service staff.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:42 AM on August 28, 2008 [4 favorites]


A sad day, indeed. Well, fuck it, they had a good run.
posted by absalom at 4:57 AM on August 28, 2008


Why should we invest in long term returns? The chinese and the indians will do and eventually we will copy their tech, much like they did with ours. Yet I see at least a problem in this profit! sekrut plan : the guys copied relatively large components and techs, miniaturiezed them (remember Sony's Walkman?). I wonder how we will copy nanoscale and ultradvanced tech without having considerable understanding and experience on the underlying physical phenomena and what our competiting edge will be.

Yet the marketing guys will convince us that macro is fashionable and that nano is for dwarf fags with little penises. I predict a redneck sale agenda.
posted by elpapacito at 5:00 AM on August 28, 2008


Yeah, that sucks, but like RobotVoodooPower hints at, the place hasn't been a place of wonder and great inventions for a while. I'm pretty sure one of their ex employees wrote a long piece about the hollowing out of the labs and the dropping morale a few years back (or perhaps I'm confusing it with a similar place...).
posted by bjrn at 5:01 AM on August 28, 2008


I worked for a business unit of AT&T that was created to support a specific technology that came out of Bell Labs, and we worked closely with the Holmdel teams over the years. That same technology has since been spun out and taken public and is the basis for a successful data management company. The first web site I ever saw was in Holmdel, circa 1994. Loads of innovation, talent, dedication. I always felt thoroughly stupid when I left there.

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posted by VicNebulous at 5:03 AM on August 28, 2008


America's lost its mojo. Corporate zombies strangled it and are now eating its innards.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:06 AM on August 28, 2008 [6 favorites]


In the new innovation model, research needs to keep addressing the need of the mother company

Now that does sound innovative- thanks god someone's there to make the short term decisions for the good of the shareholder.
posted by mattoxic at 5:12 AM on August 28, 2008


Where's the GOOG with all their jillions of dollars to pony up and re-create the 'pure research' facility that Bell Labs used to be in its heyday? While it does not surprise me that Alcatel-Lucent fails to understand the importance of a fundamental research team, I would think that the bright minds that the GOOG has attracted would understand how valuable this type of think-tank could be.

Especially when you consider how much they spend on just lunch everyday.
posted by AbnerDoon at 5:26 AM on August 28, 2008


. This encapsulates everything that I deeply hate about modern US business. The only questions that anyone cares about are, "How did we do last quarter? Can we beat that this quarter?" Twenty years ahead? They don't even care about twenty months ahead. If you want a graphic example of this, look at how Ford and GM thought that they could sell giant SUVs forever without even bothering to look more than a year or two ahead.
posted by octothorpe at 5:28 AM on August 28, 2008 [5 favorites]


AbnerDoon - they put that stuff on t he google.org domain, instead of google.com
posted by Leon at 5:29 AM on August 28, 2008


This is piss poor news.

In the early 80's, right after my undergraduate degree (Math & Computer Science) I went to work for Bell Labs, in Holmdel, New Jersey. It was a wonderful place to work.

Folks were encouraged to follow their own interest, to cross pollinate and learn about other disciplines. For example, my office mate was working on some advanced fibre optic switching stuff that they'd hoped might find some commercial applications sometime around the turn of the century. Another guy down the hall - on his own time mind you - hijacked an unused PDP 11, and ran his own weather forecasts which were much much more accurate than those we'd get on TV or radio. His "day job" as a kernel hacker didn't get in the way of this interest he had and nether did his manager, or the "owner" of the PDP.

Bjorne Stoustrup gave a series of weekly lunchtime presentations on a new language he was developing, C++. But this wasn't unusual; pretty much every day there were lunchtime presentations on something.

The lobby at the entrance to our lunchroom had a big red LED sign counting the number of patents earned this year / month / week. The number was almost always different every day.

But actually this is rather old news. When AT&T spun out Bell Labs, creating AT&T Information Systems and a few other subsidiaries (thank you Judge Green!), lots of people from Bell Labs were transferred to other commercial entities. Major culture clashes, as new managers were brought in, guys & gals who had short term objectives in mind, people who approved funding not on the basis of what might be learned but rather according to what could be commericalised and - most importantly - WHEN.

From that point on Bell Labs itself was underfunded and demoralised. The Great Diaspora began, and folks started drifting out in search of new pastures. Many went into academia, some folks I was close to ended up at La Honda, many others in the R&D arms of the Regional Bell Operating Companies, on and on. But it wasn't the same.

Myself, I followed a life long interest in the markets to it's logical conclusion given my proximity to Manhattan and other opportunities afforded: Investment Banking. First Wall Street in New York, then The City in London, picking up a couple of Masters degrees along the way.

I can't honestly say I never looked back because of course I did. My time at Bell Labs was both intense for intellectual challenge and formative for opening my mind to different ideas. It really was a wonderful place to work.

I won't say it will never be equaled because in many ways what I read about Google, especially so their policy of letting folks spend 20% of their work time on private projects, seems very similar.

Let's hope.
posted by Mutant at 5:32 AM on August 28, 2008 [24 favorites]


When you hand the country over to business, you get business criteria applied to every decision.
posted by tommasz at 5:44 AM on August 28, 2008 [2 favorites]


my dad worked there more or less his whole adult life. rip, indeed.

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posted by drworm at 5:58 AM on August 28, 2008




For those that are using this news to proselytize about the nature of American business, Alcatel is a French company.
posted by sfts2 at 6:12 AM on August 28, 2008


I just interviewed a guy on Monday who got his start at Bell Labs and worked with one of the dudes from the Manhattan Project. He told me about this and was pretty sad about it.
posted by spicynuts at 6:13 AM on August 28, 2008


I believe that Bell Labs either sponsored or produced a long documentary that was called "They Said It Couldn't Be Done" that I watched in elementary school. I would love to own that, but have never seen it turned into VHS or DVD. It was a wonderful look at huge engineering projects such as the building of the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc.

If anyone knows what happened to that film, I'd love to know.
posted by spock at 6:17 AM on August 28, 2008


This is too bad, but inevitable. AT&T had the resources to support this kind of research, most of which benefited the public more so than AT&T. Once AT&T broke up the end was inevitable. What amazes me is how long it took. I think that shows how difficult of a decision it was to close up this amazing shop.
posted by caddis at 6:17 AM on August 28, 2008


The radio show Studio 360 did a nice little profile about Bell Labs in its heyday and its influence on the world. (Flash and MP3 files offered)
posted by ardgedee at 6:29 AM on August 28, 2008


SmileyChewtrain, thanks for that Laurie Spiegel link. Love it.

spock writes:I believe that Bell Labs either sponsored or produced a long documentary that was called "They Said It Couldn't Be Done" that I watched in elementary school. I would love to own that, but have never seen it turned into VHS or DVD. It was a wonderful look at huge engineering projects such as the building of the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc.

If anyone knows what happened to that film, I'd love to know.


spock, these TV commercials would seem to be related to that film.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:32 AM on August 28, 2008


Especially when you consider how much they spend on just lunch everyday.

In theory, google spending money on food for employees keeps them in the building longer, avoiding time wasted to go out and drive for food. It keeps moral high, etc. Interestingly there has been some scandal lately as Google has outsourced their food production to a third party, you can read all about it on valleywag.

But actually this is rather old news. When AT&T spun out Bell Labs, creating AT&T Information Systems and a few other subsidiaries (thank you Judge Green!)

You mean for breaking up a giant, oppressive monopoly that used it's money to feed a patent generation machine, patents it could further use to block competition. What's wrong with that?

Look, lets not forget here Bell Labs may have done some great research, but it was research funded by a stranglehold on the U.S. telecommunications industry.

Of course, if you're the only telecommunications company, it makes sense to fund pure research, since no one else will be able to benefit from it, because of your stranglehold on the industry.

When that stranglehold went away, profit margins became to small to really support the kind of research they were doing.

But so what? The U.S. has a huge academic infrastructure where this research can be done. Venture capitalists can fund projects when projects look promising and need intensive capital. Look at the millions going into thin-film solar and other tech.

Granting near-government power to a corporation in exchange for some interesting research is not a good model for society.
posted by delmoi at 7:06 AM on August 28, 2008 [3 favorites]


I worked for Lucent back in the mid nineties, and was fortunate enough to work at Bell Labs in a very minor capacity briefly. There were a lot of dazzling people there, and it's a shame to see such a great legacy quashed.
posted by boo_radley at 7:18 AM on August 28, 2008


Aren't a ton of the people that used to work at Bell Labs now working at Google anyway? There are so many research people at Google right now. IBM still does a lot of research as well. I think it sucks Bell Labs is closing up shop as well, but as far as I can tell, it's been a lame duck for a while now.
posted by chunking express at 7:46 AM on August 28, 2008


This is sad news, but I think we need to get used to more. I bet IBM will soon complete its transformation into a 'services' company, for example. Basic research is what has created so much of the wealth and innovation around us and if major corporations abdicate their involvement to governments and academia it will become even more divorced from practical/commercial needs. I don't want to overstate it, but this sort of thing seems to be further evidence of the decline of the West into decadence. I bet that more than Bell Labs' yearly budget is spent in aggregate researching more effective anti-cellulite creams. Maybe Asian firms will pick up the baton, but I am not sure that will happen for a very long time.
posted by The Salaryman at 7:47 AM on August 28, 2008


BTW I can see delmoi's point, but in my opinion the breakup of AT&T was structurally foolish - a regulated wholesale/infrastructure monopoly is a natural economic state of affairs given the hugs capital costs but only if it is completely separated from (and forbidden to compete in) retail. The Baby Bells idea was rather silly one and the result for consumers was by most accounts even worse than the privatised BT monopoly in the UK (which also may get the wholesale/retail split someday).
posted by The Salaryman at 7:53 AM on August 28, 2008


I spent last year on hiatus from Wired as the editorial consultant for a book that came out last week, Closing the Innovation Gap, by Internet pioneer and former Cisco CTO Judy Estrin, which precisely addresses the threat to the future of the US posed by the shutdown of long-range R&D labs like this. Estrin talks about institutions like Bell Labs as part of an "Innovation Ecosystem" that sustains ongoing scientific discovery and economic growth, and points to increasing demands for short-term financial returns and immediately "practical" applications by stockholders, CEOs, and directors of government agencies like DARPA as factors hastening the demise of this ecosystem. At the same time, she discusses declining interest in science education, emphasis on standardized tests under misguided programs like Bush's No Child Left Behind, and the marginalization of scientists as just another "special-interest group" by politicians as factors that are decimating the ranks of future long-range researchers among young people. I think it's a very important book, and this quote in the FPP link -- "Alcatel-Lucent, the parent company of Bell Labs, is pulling out of basic science, material physics and semiconductor research and will instead be focusing on more immediately marketable areas such as networking, high-speed electronics, wireless, nanotechnology and software" -- could have been taken directly from Estrin's pages as an example of the short-sighted, market-driven thinking that threatens our future as we face problems like global warming and dependence on foreign oil. Download a sample chapter [Word link].
posted by digaman at 8:07 AM on August 28, 2008 [6 favorites]


For those that are using this news to proselytize about the nature of American business, Alcatel is a French company.

Alcatel-Lucent is a global company. Does it really matter where its headquarters are?
posted by ssg at 8:33 AM on August 28, 2008


It's obviously a cover-up. They've invented something so hideous, so world-changing, so insane that they've decided to shut down the department, and bury under a cubic-mile of concrete.

Please don't open that door.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:44 AM on August 28, 2008


STASIS/MAJESTIC-12/the Eschaton/etc shut them down because they were about to prove that P=NP and build a strongly godlike AI (too soon).
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:57 AM on August 28, 2008


THE VERY BIG STUPID is a thing which breeds by eating The Future. Have you seen it? It sometimes disguises itself as a good-looking quarterly bottom line, derived by closing the R&D Department.

-- Frank Zappa
posted by kcds at 9:06 AM on August 28, 2008 [4 favorites]


.

First the death of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and now this.

With luck, it's just the advent of the creative technological diaspora.

Without luck, we're just dead-eyed consumers with cellphones and Wiis.
posted by sonascope at 9:08 AM on August 28, 2008


ssg,

Well, no. Except if you are using the financial decisions made within its French corporate headquarters as an argument on the decline of 'American' business. So, yes, yes it does matter. A little bit.
posted by sfts2 at 9:15 AM on August 28, 2008


I joined the Labs in '82, watched the steady decline in funding that accompanied the 1984 divestiture, and left just as the death knell was dealt in '95. The body has been twitching since then, but the sheet was already pulled. It was sad to watch Nobel laureates struggling to find relevance to stockholders, but I've done my grieving.

I never, ever had such fun or intellectual stimulation, before or since. They paid me (paid me!) to get a MS, and while Stanford was fun, I couldn't wait to get back. Best. Job. Ever.
posted by skippyhacker at 9:18 AM on August 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


sfts, as the book I linked above makes plain, American business is in trouble on a thousand fronts because of short-sighted thinking like this, whether this particular decision emanated from an office in Paris or Manhattan.
posted by digaman at 9:19 AM on August 28, 2008


> But so what? The U.S. has a huge academic infrastructure where this research can be done. Venture capitalists can fund projects when projects look promising and need intensive capital. Look at the millions going into thin-film solar and other tech.

Problematic on two fronts.

First, the whole point of Bell Labs was to foster interdisciplinary research. That's contrary to the point of academe, where ones peers are those who share your subspecialty. If you can develop a niche as a polymath, expect to be treated as somebody incapable of the depth your colleagues have won their tenure with. Also, expect to spend chunks of every day in teaching and advising.

Second, venture capitalists do not give money away. They will only fund your research if they believe it can plausibly earn them more than they invested. They're highly unlikely to indulge in free-ranging R&D that won't have practical applications -- nevermind profitable ones -- for a decade or more. And, again, they're not going to put you in the same building as three dozen other people at the tops of their disparate fields.
posted by ardgedee at 10:02 AM on August 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm surprised it lasted this long in the current (last 25-30 years or more) corporate climate of looking ahead, perhaps a couple years -- for the farsighted companies who can pull their collective eyes off of just the next quarter.
posted by chimaera at 10:04 AM on August 28, 2008


I was just mulling over the psychopathy of corporations this morning. Meh. Sad to see an institution like this with a fine and glorious history tossed onto the rubbish heap though.

However, the way real life works, it's not like the research itself won't be happening. It will just be happening in Europe, where it's more respected, with better access to facilities and better funded. Remember when the superconducting supercollider was going to be built in Texas? Last laugh is on you, Americans!

Besides, Bell Labs did nothing to support research confirming intelligent design. Farewell, intellectuals, to a place where you can have the nationalized medical system and government run social welfare you deserve.

Wait! Wait! That was supposed to be pejorative! We didn't mean that! Come baaaaaaaaaack....
posted by Xoebe at 10:11 AM on August 28, 2008


First, .

This is too bad. Regardless of whether other research facilities will fill in, the Bell Labs facility did a lot of amazing work. It is sad to see it go.

Google... especially so their policy of letting folks spend 20% of their work time on private projects, seems very similar.

So there is some misunderstanding about this. GOOG engineers can spend 20% of their time on something other than their primary assigned project. For the vast majority of the engineering staff the 20% time is simply spent on a different project. Some of these other projects are regular projects, e.g. Engineer A spends 80% of her time on search quality and 20% on Google Docs because she likes it. Some are infrastructure projects, e.g. Engineer B spend his 20% on working with the code standards committee. But it's pretty rare that an engineer spends their 20% time on something that's completely whole-cloth new. Doing something completely new requires a combination of a really smart engineer, a really good idea and enough political savvy to convince their manager that it's worthwhile. So it's not quite as crazy as it sounds. Engineers are actively solicited for ways to spend their 20% time.

Google has some great work going on, but it isn't the same kind of fundamentals as Bell Labs. Microsoft Research is much closer to what Bell Labs did with a lot of basic and undirected research in a number of different areas. They have some fairly big-names researchers there as well IIRC.
posted by GuyZero at 10:14 AM on August 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oh, wait, and besides, marketing genius > science genius any day of the week. The guy that invented ball point pens was smart. But the motherfucking sadist that invented 40-dollar a cartridge ink for a 75 dollar four color ink printer - now THAT s.o.b. was a genius!

Suckers.
posted by Xoebe at 10:21 AM on August 28, 2008


Excellent post, ardgedee.

Google has some great work going on, but it isn't the same kind of fundamentals as Bell Labs. Microsoft Research is much closer to what Bell Labs did with a lot of basic and undirected research in a number of different areas. They have some fairly big-names researchers there as well IIRC.

One main point is that Google doesn't make many of the fruits of its much-vaunted research available to the larger scientific community. It's proprietary. That's great for Google. For the rest of us, notsomuch.
posted by digaman at 10:44 AM on August 28, 2008


First, the whole point of Bell Labs was to foster interdisciplinary research. That's contrary to the point of academe, where ones peers are those who share your subspecialty.

Eh. I'd say this is changing somewhat. "Interdisciplinary" is becoming quite the watchword in the engineering academy, at least. I know more than a few people who have gotten tenure by working at the interface of traditional disciplines.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:56 AM on August 28, 2008


(Accidentally posted this in the comments section of the actual article, so I'll post it again here, where it was meant to be.)

Why pay for basic research when the government will do it for you? The concept of "on the dole" has permeated the highest levels of our society. And then ... and THEN ....

Deficits and recession ... the government is forced to cut spending. And where do they cut first? You guessed it -- basic research. This, of course, kills academic research as well, since the grants evaporate.

So, we are left with no research -- at least until some maverick business tycoon decides they can gain an edge by actually encouraging innovation. Problem is, by that time, all the scientists and technicians who were put out of work are retired or flipping burgers and don't want to rejoin the rat race only to have the same thing happen to them all over again. Of course, because university research was cut off, students are pursuing other venues because they have been told there is no future in research any more.

But don't worry ... China will provide us with all that we need.

OK, this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but the loss of corporate basic research, from which so many of our scientific discoveries have derived (Did someone say, "Bell Labs"? This article says it all: Penzias and Wilson's Discovery is One of the Century's Key Advances.), will ultimately prove disastrous for the U.S. if not reversed.

Of course, perhaps we should not be too concerned after all. Within a few years CERN will be attempting to create a black hole that will eat the Earth, rendering all of this meaningless.
posted by Spidermaster at 11:17 AM on August 28, 2008


History of the Transistor:
The first patent[1] for the field-effect transistor principle was filed in Canada by Austrian-Hungarian physicist Julius Edgar Lilienfeld on October 22, 1925, but Lilienfeld published no research articles about his devices, and they were ignored by industry. In 1934 German physicist Dr. Oskar Heil patented another field-effect transistor[2]. There is no direct evidence that these devices were built, but later work in the 1990s show that one of Lilienfeld's designs worked as described and gave substantial gain. Legal papers from the Bell Labs patent show that Shockley and Pearson had built operational versions from Lilienfeld's patents, yet they never referenced this work in any of their later research papers or historical articles. [3][4]
Further, if you take a look at the talk page, you get this detail, with a dead link..
According to Bell System Memorial there were accounts in British magazines from the 1910s about Russian ship board operators achieving gain from "cat's whisker" diodes with two whiskers.
However, the internet archive does have a copy of the Bell System Memorial article on the history of the transistor:
It was in 1906 that the G.W. Pickard of Amesbury, Massachusetts perfected the crystal detector and in November of that year took out a patent for the use of silicon in detectors. Arguably this was the start of the silicon revolution and it did not take long before experimenters achieved amplification using crystal devices, long before the term transistor was devised.
posted by Chuckles at 11:40 AM on August 28, 2008


.

Remember when being in favor of science and research didn't get you labeled as a flaming left-winger?
posted by jonp72 at 11:55 AM on August 28, 2008


That's great for Google. For the rest of us, notsomuch.

What "much-vaunted" research? GFS? MapReduce? Both are amazing engineering, but not really fundamental research breakthroughs.

Microsoft was founded in 1975. Microsoft Research began in 1991, 16 years later. Google is just about to turn 10 - someday it will have a great research division, but if they have one now it's pretty well hidden. Whether Microsoft Research will eventually have the impact and legacy of Bell Labs remains to be seen, though I certainly hope it happens.
posted by GuyZero at 12:13 PM on August 28, 2008


Mutant : guys & gals who had short term objectives in mind, people who approved funding not on the basis of what might be learned but rather according to what could be commericalised and - most importantly - WHEN.

Interestingly, this is a dynamic they have just introduced on the TV show Eureka, which has led to a lot of aggravation from the perspective of this particular viewer. Mainly because it gives them an excuse to do pointless product placement under the guise of stuff invented on the show.

I have little doubt that the concept for the town designed to foster cross disciplinary technological advancements is directly based on labs like Bell, and sadly, I suspect that the real world demise of Bell Labs might be provide an analog to where the show is going to end up.
posted by quin at 1:21 PM on August 28, 2008


And by "pointless" I mean it probably generates them a ton of money, at the expense of totally breaking me out of the show. I'm not against product placement, I'm against really, really noticeable and repeated product placement.
posted by quin at 1:22 PM on August 28, 2008


Microsoft Research may employ some brilliant people, but they do not seem to have much a history of groundbreaking work, in the vein of Bell Labs. It doesn't seem right to mention them this thread, really.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:54 PM on August 28, 2008


i guess the bell was tolling for them.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:58 PM on August 28, 2008


Yay, I hope they go on to build us some exciting new bombs! The ones we've got now are starting to seem a bit ho-hum.
posted by turgid dahlia at 2:53 PM on August 28, 2008


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posted by Crabby Appleton at 3:16 PM on August 28, 2008


i guess the bell was tolling for them.

Ask not for whom the transistor conducts...it conducts for thee.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:22 PM on August 28, 2008


For those that are using this news to proselytize about the nature of American business, Alcatel is a French company.
posted by sfts2


I think that's pretty much the point that was being made.
posted by Eekacat at 7:53 PM on August 28, 2008


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