By Spencer Thomas, PhD
I’d like to talk about patterns. In particular, the pattern that you might see if you look at this sunflower.*
Before you even think about it, I’m sure you can see spirals. Maybe you see them whirling clockwise, maybe counter-clockwise. Let your eyes refocus and another set of spirals will appear. They almost seem to pop out in your vision, but hang on; which is it? Are they going left or are they going right?
We have an incredible talent for picking out patterns out of noise; you can recognize a friend in a crowd or a familiar song over construction noises without thinking about it. Our sense for patterns is so sharp that we see faces in the moon or in potato chips, or shapes in the clouds. This is probably for the better; thinking you saw some food, some hidden danger, or even a friend where there is none is a lot safer than missing the one that actually is there, so I’d definitely take some silly crossed signals in exchange for this power of ours.
These are harmless examples, but there is a dark side. Gamblers see patterns in their wins and losses and make catastrophic bets. Con-artists exploit us, claiming to tell the future or read minds. Confirmation bias is a dangerous habit that has pervaded our political discourse, where we pick out evidence and patterns in data that suit our preferred answer. We don’t do this with ill-intent; it’s something our patterned-tuned brains do beyond our control. We can only fight it if we watch ourselves, think twice, and double check the news we forward it to our friends.
We also see patterns on another level; we find curious connections throughout the world, linking ideas that don’t seem related. Sometimes it looks like magic, others like design. Sometimes, it’s our minds searching for something that’s not there. As a scientist, this can be frustrating for me. I see articles about psychic powers and fake science, dangerous alternative medicine, and this prevailing tendency to make science mystical and unknowable. I think many people would be surprised as to how much they can understand with a little patience. We don’t need to scrutinize every detail in our experience, but I don’t like it when people assume that that is beyond them. Sometimes, with some care, the microscope lets us peel back the veil of nature and find the truth behind a pattern.
The Fibonacci sequence and the Golden Ratio are patterns that pop up all the time in nature and in media. The Fibonacci sequence follows a simple rule; I start with the first two numbers, 1 and 1. If I add these numbers I get 2. If I add the 2nd and 3rd numbers (1 and 2) I get three. Add the 3rd and 4th I get 5, etc. The sequence looks like , etc. It sounds like the kind of thing a bored mathematician would do for fun, but it has a peculiar habit of showing up all over nature. Plants seem especially fond of it; you can see it in the arrangement of leaves on a stem, the scales of pineapples, and as it happens, the florets of a sunflower. If you go back to that first picture of a sunflower and counted the spirals in the seeds, you’d notice something interesting. I can pick out spirals at a bunch of different angles and directions, but the number is always a Fibonacci number.
This is a peculiar quirk of the way these florets grow. The plant spirals out as it produces them, following a rule - each seed is some angle from the last. This angle happens to be a full divided by , where (the Greek letter ‘phi’) is the Golden Ratio, about equal to 1.618.
Like the Fibonacci sequence, the golden ratio appears everywhere in nature. People have known about this number for a very long time; the ancient Greek sculptor Phidias (400s BCE) worked it into much of his art. A quick google search will tell you how people have associated it with the ratios of beautiful faces, sections in pieces of music, etc. The ratio itself also has some neat properties, for example (in fact is sometimes likened to ’s little brother).
So what does have to do with Fibonacci number? The two are intimately related. If I divide the 1st and 2nd Fibonacci numbers (1 and 1), I get 1. The 2nd and 3rd (1 and 2) give me 2, the 3rd and 4th give me 1.5, then 1.666…, then 1.6, etc. If I keep picking later and later Fibonacci numbers, I get closer and closer to . That’s that mystery solved, but why does a sunflower care? Sunflowers probably don’t know math, but they’re also not stupid. They’re carefully optimized by evolution to make the most out of what they’ve got; their mission is to fit as many seeds as possible onto their face. As a material scientist, I could tell you the very best way to do that looks like this:
It looks a lot like a honeycomb and that is no mistake. This is how bees achieve the same goal, but the sunflower kinda wrote itself into a corner. The spiraling mechanism that sunflowers use to grow can’t make a honeycomb; it’s terrible at making packed arrangements, always leaving some empty space. Instead of completely altering how the sunflower grows to solve this problem, evolution tuned it to do the very best with what it has, and with its Fibonacci spirals happens to be the optimal turning angle.
It was shown by J.N. Ridley** that this is the best possible way to pack seeds on a sunflower’s disc and this video is a beautiful demonstration of the idea. What it comes down to is that is almost 21/34, and it’s almost 34/55, and almost almost 55/81, but these are all really bad estimates. By comparison, 22/7 is a pretty good estimate for Pi. You need really large numbers to get a ratio that’s close to, so a turning angle of is a sunflower’s best hope at making the messiest spirals it can.
Give yourself some credit; that sunflower is doing everything it can to hide its spirals, but you can still see them clear as day!
Spencer Thomas recently received his PhD in Materials Science and Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. He is now doing his Postdoc at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He also happens to be Katie's brother. Spencer studies metals at the atomic level; the way atoms are arranged in a material can change its properties; one can take ordinary metals make them stronger, more flexible, corrosion resistant, even radiation resistant.
Spencer believes that no matter who you are, good communication can put scientific concepts within reach. The modern world demands scientific literacy and it is the responsibility of scientists to make that possible.
* As an aside -- I learned something else writing this article. The "flower" of a sunflower isn't actually a flower. Every one of those individual seed pod-looking things ("disc florets" clustered in the center, "ray florets" around the outside) is an individual flower. It's not terribly relevant here, but has made it a little tricky to talk about concisely! The whole head is called a capitulum.
It seems ray florets don't possess both male and female reproductive organs, but disc florets do, which means the disc florets can self-pollinate so the sunflower has some florets dedicated solely toward sexual reproduction (which is often considered healthier), while the disc florets can do both as needed.
Apparently, when people started figuring out how all this worked, it was considered a very scandalous line of inquiry! It's actually kind of interesting. Lots of flowers are capable of self-pollinating, but most of them only do it as a last ditch resort because diversity is good.
** Ridley, J. N. (1982). Packing efficiency in sunflower heads. Mathematical Biosciences, 58(1), 129-139.
Appreciating a Tour and Visionary Plans at the Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe
We are grateful that the rain held off while we traipsed about the property that holds Nikola Tesla’s last and only surviving laboratory, “Wardenclyffe,” last May. It was a privilege to listen to board member Neil Baggett talk about the great scientist and his time on Long Island, and plans to advance his legacy. While nothing can replace an in-person tour with a devoted expert – we highly recommend taking one if you can! -- here is a bit of what we learned:
Nikola Tesla was a highly prolific inventor, a gifted electrical and mechanical engineer, and a pioneering physicist. He was a futurist, an innovator and a risk-taker. As a deeply mysterious genius with a gift for showmanship who was reportedly born around midnight in the midst of a terrible lightning storm, many consider him a wizard. Some, even, a great mystic.
A true historian, Baggett’s philosophy about dealing with Tesla is to stick to what can be confirmed, “There’s a lot said about Tesla,” he remarks, “What we don’t know for sure, we try not to say.”
That goes for the board and staff of the developing Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe. Others who support the effort to restore his laboratory and otherwise pay pilgrimage may subscribe to more speculative theories. When it comes to Tesla, these are in ample supply, ranging widely to include but hardly be limited to him being a mystic seer, a native of Venus who didn’t die but rather just went home, a champion of free power for the people undone by corporate bandits, and a mad scientist whose tower to power the world was more effective as a death ray which accidentally caused one of the largest, most unexplained explosions on record in Siberia by flipping a switch in Shoreham.
That’s fine, says Baggett, “They are free to believe what they wish. We stick to what we know.”
What we know is fascinating in its own right. Tesla was born in 1856 in Serbia, the son of a priest in the Serbian Orthodox Church. The rest of his family were military men and scholars. He stood 6’4” and throughout his adult life weighed almost invariably 142 pounds. He was a man of many quirks: Although he dressed elegantly and fancied crystals, he despised pearls to the point of being unable to speak to people wearing them. Touching hair and shaking hands were also taboo. He was obsessed with the number three and multiples thereof. There’s a Room 3327 with his name on it where he lived in the Hotel New Yorker.
Tesla worked exceptionally long hours, claiming 3am to 11pm, walked 8-10 miles per day, and hardly slept. Although he earned no academic degrees, he was granted 12 honorary ones. He spoke eight languages and was said to have a photographic memory that enabled him to memorize books and visualize plans in great detail before putting them down on paper.
Tesla first came to New York City at age 28. Prior to that, Tesla worked for the Continental Edison Company in Paris, France designing dynamos. Overseer Charles Batchelor found him to be brilliant to the point of sending Tesla overseas with a letter of recommendation that said, “Mr. Edison, I know two great men. You are one and this is the other.”
Tesla’s biggest and most elusive accomplishments were about electric power. Much is said about the “War of Currents” between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. Tesla had invented the AC motor, but Edison used only DC power. After leaving Edison due at least in large part to this difference, Tesla spoke widely and was recognized as an “Extraordinary Electrician.” He was a strong proponent of AC power, which eventually won out in the United States despite Thomas Edison’s incredible efforts to make DC dominant.
Giants Among Men, Legendary Rivalries: Tesla, Edison and “The War of Currents”
Some believe quite strongly that Edison’s hard nose and exceptionally capitalistic, factory-driven approach to innovation played a large role in driving Tesla mad and undermining his success, to the detriment of humanity today. It is fairly well-documented that Tesla thought he had been promised a bonus of $50,000 (roughly $1.5M in 2019 dollars) for working out kinks in one of Edison’s DC projects, while Edison insisted that the somewhat younger, foreign-born genius didn’t understand American humor. It is also well documented that Edison secretly funded the first electric chair powered by his rival’s AC current which led to a brutal public display emphasizing his argument that AC was too dangerous. This was in addition to other unpleasant public shows, one of which famously included electrocuting an elephant.
Still, Baggett’s assessment is less accusatory: Although they were by no means great friends and had a massive split over the promised payment to Tesla and their diverging ideas regarding the best form of electric power, Tesla did win the 7th Edison Award, which he treasured for the rest of his life. Edison was a ruthless and often unsavory businessman, but Tesla’s solitary methods didn’t help him to thrive in the political and economic systems of human beings who – like it or no - ultimately end up determining who is rewarded and who is not. He had little close association with any big companies and the support systems that come with them. Fiercely independent, he didn’t collaborate easily. One exception was George Westinghouse, who played a major role in adopting Tesla’s AC system, which he then used during a major project conducted with both innovation giants. Westinghouse generated AC power at Niagara Falls and General Electric transmitted it to Buffalo. Edison participated as part of General Electric, into which his company had recently been merged by JP Morgan.
The World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition, celebrating the discovery of America in 1492, was planned for 1892. In 1893 it actually happened, hosting 27 million people. Westinghouse and Tesla generated the AC power that lit the fair. This marked Tesla’s most triumphant victory: Winning “The Current War.”
Ultimately, Tesla’s income largely came from patents, many of which he sold outright to Westinghouse. He agreed to forgo the AC motor royalties to keep Westinghouse afloat rather than ruin the company. Still, self-sacrificing though that may have been, one may still observe that this was a poor decision, especially as Westinghouse was a sharp businessman who likely could have taken care of himself. Plus, although it’s true he spent latter years of his life almost penniless, subsisting on meager fare and communing with pigeons, Tesla didn’t exactly live humbly or modestly, himself.
Prolific Invention & Fantastic Dreams; a “Worldwide Wireless Network”
Tesla’s inventions were many, not the least of which included the induction motor, neon and phosphorescent lights, and the remote control, which was used for a boat. Tesla made substantial contributions toward radio, so much so that although many still credit Guglielmo Marconi with the invention, a 1943 Supreme Court decision overturned many of Marconi’s patents to recognize Tesla as the primary pioneer. He also studied x-rays. As late as 1913, he designed a bladeless turbine that was used in flow meters, speedometers and odometers. In the 20’s he had already worked out details that basically envisioned the cellphone. His last patent was for a flying machine capable of vertical takeoffs.
In addition to Westinghouse, there were some other prominent supporters. John Jacob Astor gave Tesla $100,000 in 1899, which is roughly equivalent to $3.1M today. Astor felt burned, as he thought he was making a far more conservative investment in the continuing development of cool-bulb lighting systems while Tesla spent the funds on elusive dreams of powering the world in Colorado. Still, Astor did later work with him on aircraft and propulsion systems. This ended when Astor went down with the Titanic in 1912.
Another investor was JP Morgan, whose daughter Ann and Tesla were close friends, despite her penchant for pearls. Tesla had some success in Colorado, studying the effect of lightning bolts on the ground, getting wireless light bulbs to light within a field. He also produced a great deal of lightning with his own equipment, the impacts of which succeeded in burning his relationship with the El Paso Electric Company that had been providing him free power. Still, Tesla was convinced his experiments had him on the verge of a major breakthrough, enabling him to elicit $150,000 from Morgan in return for a 51 percent interest in his patents and inventions, including future ones.
This passionate pursuit of global energy and information transmission – a “Worldwide Wireless Network” -- is what brought him in 1901 to develop “Wardenclyffe,” his Shoreham, Long Island laboratory. (At that time, Wardenclyffe was the name of the village now called Shoreham.) At this point, communications between North America and Europe relied on a Trans-Atlantic cable. Tesla planned to send information through the earth without a cable. However, while Tesla’s construction was still underway, rival Marconi sent the letter “S” across the Atlantic in wireless Morse code, proving radio would work. Although, as mentioned, it was decided shortly after Tesla’s death that many of those patents should have rightfully gone to him, Tesla himself hadn’t pursued that line of research. He thought those signals, which travel in a straight line, were ineffective. In light of Marconi’s plans, he decided to go bigger. Despite Morgan’s refusal to supply further funding, Tesla persisted.
The tower at Wardenclyffe was a monstrous 187 feet high and 68 feet across, topped with a giant metal hemisphere and rooted with a grounding rod that ran 120’ down into the ground. Tesla envisioned this as the centerpiece of a system that would be equivalent to today’s cellular telephone system plus radio and television, and establish the Earth itself as one giant wireless power grid. A quote of Tesla's that we found on the Tesla Science Center website reads thus:
"As soon as completed, it will be possible for a business man in New York to dictate instructions, and have them instantly appear in type at his office in London or elsewhere. He will be able to call up, from his desk, and talk to any telephone subscriber on the globe, without any change whatever in the existing equipment. An inexpensive instrument, not bigger than a watch, will enable its bearer to hear anywhere, on sea or land, music or song, the speech of a political leader, the address of an eminent man of science, or the sermon of an eloquent clergyman, delivered in some other place, however distant. In the same manner any picture, character, drawing, or print can be transferred from one to another place. Millions of such instruments can be operated from but one plant of this kind. More important than all of this, however, will be the transmission of power, without wires, which will be shown on a scale large enough to carry conviction."
Tesla was on a mission to provide free power to all, anywhere they happened to be. Baggett’s assessment of that is guarded, “We don’t know if he would have followed through on that. Only that he said he would.” Still, this was the stated intention, and Tesla was a patently terrible capitalist.
By 1915, Tesla had run out of money. Astor was dead and Morgan was no longer interested. His debt at the Waldorf-Astoria where he’d been living would have been valued at nearly $500,000 in 2019. The tower was dynamited for scrap to help pay for this. Tesla didn’t quash rumors that his tower had been used by Germans in World War I, in order to keep news of his personal ruin quiet.
Tesla lived until 1943. He had some successful inventions and awards, and a number of challenges both with his work and his mental health. His passion for pigeons found particular focus on an injured white bird that he claimed was his true love. He spent over $2,000 on that bird, building her a device to support her body while her bones repaired. In 1934, after some years of poverty, Westinghouse – for reasons not entirely clear – began paying him $125 per month plus his rent at the Hotel New York. This continued for the rest of Tesla’s life. He became famous for his birthday reports, which involved grand celebrations, memoirs and opinions, as well as grandiose claims that included, among other things, a motor that ran on cosmic rays, energy that ran counter to Einstein’s physics, metallurgical breakthroughs and photographs that captured thought.
Baggett will note that Tesla’s trajectory had one thing in common with Albert Einstein, who also experienced great success early on in his career, only to have his biggest dream – A Unified Field Theory – frustrate him until his passing. “People with this great a scope of dream find it tough to realize. Both were men of great vision. While his path was challenging, Tesla built and made great things.”
Serbia loves this genius son. Although he achieved US citizenship, Tesla is said to have been very proud to have been one of them. When he died in 1943, it is said that agents from the U.S. Federal Government inspected a safe that held a number of papers, some of which had been rumored to blueprint a Death Ray that Tesla believed terrible enough to successfully scare mankind away from war forever. No such plans were found. His beloved Edison Prize, also, has never been found. The nation of Serbia requested what remained of his estate. In 1957 it was all given to them. They are apparently still going through the papers to this very day.
Advancing the Legacy
While the property now owned by Friends of Science East is 16 acres, Tesla originally had 200. James Warden had built Wardenclyffe (now called Shoreham Village) to house wealthy New Yorkers in the summertime. Now, more of his land would be developed to add houses for workers at Tesla’s new power plant.
Between 1940 and 1987, the site was a photo processing plant owned first by Peerless Photo Products and then by Agfa Photo. Tesla’s lab essentially became a factory. Other buildings were constructed and are still on the site. Between 1987 and 2012, when folks came around to save the place, it basically became a jungle. There were three factors precipitating the purchase: the land was about to be re-zoned by the Town of Brookhaven, the hazardous materials cleanup had been concluded and the property was cleared for sale, and there was an interested European investor.
Baggett will tell you that he is thankful for what he sees as a series of miracles.
One is the crowdfunding miracle, led by a man who came forward to champion the cause, Matthew Boyd Inman, author of an online comic called The Oatmeal. Inman wrote a passionate piece: “Why Nikola Tesla was the Greatest Geek Who Ever Lived'” He also launched an Indiegogo campaign with a goal of $850,000 to match a New Yorker state grant, buy the Agfa property, and save Tesla’s laboratory.
That goal was met with a climactic $33,333 donation from the producer of a film called “Fragments From Olympus – The Vision of Nikola Tesla.” It was then surpassed by donors who raised the total to more than a million dollars between August 15 and August 24, 2012. The campaign ended after 45 days, bringing the grand total raised to $1.37M. Contributions ranged from $1 to $35,000, with an average donation of about $40. Together with funds from a NYS matching grant, they had amassed over $2M.
On May 2nd, 2013, the members of the Board purchased the grounds. The next day saw the volunteer miracle, when local (and some distant) volunteers descended on the property, clearing the overgrown grounds in record time. They brought not only rakes and shovels, but bulldozers and electrical technology and legal assistance.
That fall, the nation of Serbia gifted a statue that now stands on the property surrounded by a patio crafted via an exceptionally creative buy-a-brick campaign. In 2014, also with the illustrated encouragement of Inman, complete with a tweet to provoke response, Elon Musk stepped up to pledge $1M and a Tesla charging station for his electric cars.
The donors as a whole are known as “Tesla Village.” They number roughly 33,000 people in 108 countries. Several Eagle Scout projects have also helped to move things along. Last August, the site was added to the US National Historic Register.
The board, itself, Baggett would describe as “regular people with ideas, dreams and a little bit of money.” During the first few years, most of the resources they had to offer came in the form of sweat equity. Now they have an Executive Director, Marc Alessi, and a growing staff to build and operate the Center. The board will focus on keeping the dream, setting goals to achieve it, approving the budget requests, and raising the money to fund them.
All in all, the progress to date has been an amazing show of the power of volunteers. The pervasive repetition of Tesla’s beloved number 3 and its numerological multiples (i.e., 108 countries is 1 + 0 + 8 = 9, also 108/3=36) is a source of delight to those involved.
Plans for the Site
A building called the “Bauer Residence” is one of the first on the slate for renovation. It will become an administrative building and visitor center. The vision is to recreate the lab and create a STEAM museum that honors Tesla’s memory and his legacy of visionary innovation.
Due to the post-Tesla history, the lab requires extra work. The photo processing equipment must be removed, as well as a second floor, stairs and various walls. Asbestos remediation has occurred. Mold issues remain, keeping them from opening the building to visitors just yet. Fortunately, some pictures exist and there are plans to meet with design professionals. They look forward to recreating the laboratory. While rebuilding the tower on the foundation stones that still exist may prove to be a tall order, there is already a small-scale, simple model on the grounds beside them that has been donated.
While they may still tear them all down, it is possible that some of the later buildings will prove useful, especially as diverse craft exhibits are intended to be a major part of what is expected to be a very active museum teeming with young STEAM students. There are also visions for an incubator of innovation designed to foster fledgling inventors and entrepreneurs. Already, there are several educational programs occurring with local partners. Most are off-site, but some – like Tesla’s upcoming birthday party, which is also celebrating the centennial of Tesla’s 1919 autobiography, My Inventions! -- are already making good use of the grounds. They look forward to advancing groundbreaking partnerships with experts, venture capitalists and investors.
“Maybe we’ll keep a few shares of whatever projects are launched here,” Baggett muses.
There are talks of having an exhibit about the Tesla automobile on site, especially as Elon Musk has promised the charging station. Baggett smiles as he relates a race from Detroit to NY that occurred between an old Model T Ford and a new Tesla not too long ago, “The Model T is slow, but a Tesla needs a long time to charge. It was close, but the Tesla won by half an hour!”
All in all, The Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe promises to be a fitting tribute advancing the legacy of a unique person who was, ultimately, an American Icon.
Says Baggett, “We would love to see him more appreciated.”
Note: This article was amended to fix the name of the Hotel New Yorker in which Tesla lived. We had written Hotel New York. We also were mistaken in our understanding of what's required inside the lab, which has also been corrected and given further description. Some other minor adjustments were made to improve clarity and understanding. Any other errors here are our fault, and not that of the TSCW, which endeavors mightily to provide accurate information and clear up misunderstandings regarding Tesla. We are incredibly grateful to both Neil Baggett and Jane Alcorn for helping minimize any errors we may have made. Thank you!
By Spencer Thomas
Destin Sandlin, creator of the YouTube channel, "Smarter Every Day," is a rocketry engineer at the Redstone Arsenal. Arguably, his breakout video demonstrated the remarkable ability of chickens to keep their heads stable independent of their bodies. You can google “Inverted Pendulum” for an idea of how important a problem this is for engineers. His channel was a golden opportunity to get his children involved performing experiments and learning science by experience, while also supplementing their college funds. He also leveraged his success to help build an orphanage in Peru. His videos range from slow-motion videography of Prince Rupert’s Drops and explosions, to the mechanics of insect flight, to entomology adventures in South America.
In particular, I’d like to mention the recent Episode #182: Dominoes -- HARDCORE Mode. There’s amazing subtlety in something as simple and whimsical as a chain of falling dominoes and Destin captures it beautifully. Destin’s experience as an engineer sees a pattern, the signature of the corrections that rockets make mid-flight. Dominoes and rockets may seem unrelated, but no chain of dominoes is perfect and rockets have to fight through turbulence. We hope that our dominoes all fall in a row, and we seriously hope that our rockets don’t spiral out of control. Maybe dominoes can tell us something about stability, and studying dominoes might help us make better rockets.
This is where Destin makes an appeal for Basic Research. We don’t get some obvious economic benefit from understanding how dominoes fall, but we learn a lot in the process. There are many curiosities in the world and dozens of mysteries even in the most mundane aspects of daily life. For some, curiosity is enough. To others, these questions sound frivolous. However, we don’t always know what rewards we will reap when we empower thoughtful individuals to follow their noses and give them the freedom to explore.
History has shown that the rewards can be numerous, and sometimes fundamental. The transistor, the cornerstone of modern technology, would make no sense were it not for our understanding of quantum mechanics. The foundation of quantum mechanics was laid by scientists who were puzzled by the colors that objects glow when they get really hot (from red to white to blue). The eureka moment that solved that riddle changed everything about how we see the world at the smallest scales, and produced one of the most important technological revolutions of all time.
This is the foundation of science; dues that must be paid if we intend to advance. While the development of the transistor paid great dividends, it wasn’t remotely obvious that the specific color a hot poker glows would ever be understood as anything more than a novelty. Another example, we don’t study fruit flies because we want to develop medicine for fruit flies. We study fruit flies because their genetics are simple and easy to probe. As we improve our understanding of genetics in the abstract, we improve our capacity to provide treatments for people.
It is concerning that the US government share of basic research funding has fallen below 50% for the first time in the post-World War II era. While some of this is due to an increase in corporate investment, particularly on the part of the pharmaceutical industry, a significant part of it is because we as a nation are increasingly declining to contribute budget dollars. While the increase in private investment since 2012 is helpful, the findings of private and corporate investment are not as openly shared as public endeavors, including even basic data as to whether the research being conducted is actually basic or applied.
Basic research is not really conducive to business, at least not at the early stages that can have the greatest impact. The outcomes are too uncertain, desirable tangents are too frequent, and the timelines are too long. The risky and meandering path of basic research is often not good for business. It’s not just unrealistic to expect captains of industry to conduct this kind of research; it’s not really a fair expectation because people depend on them to ensure the bottom line and provide safe investments.
Occasionally, a singular individual arises like Elon Musk, who seems to regard profit as a means to innovation rather than the other way around. However, the ability, desire, and charisma required to make that work and bring people along is rare. People like him are important, but we cannot rely on them alone to address the issues that we face. Not only is his combination of qualities rare, we must also acknowledge that he's still very limited in what he alone will champion. The kinds of things he is trying to develop are still technologies with immediate practical application and relatively short-term monetary benefit.
This is not the pursuit for those who want to take advantage of the opportunities in the marketplace. This is the pursuit that creates those opportunities. We have to decide, as a society, if we wish to pursue them and how much we will invest. Philanthropists are important, but the truly altruistic are rare and, quite frankly, can't do everything we need alone. We still need public funding that supports the kinds of basic research that are only really feasible in universities and national labs.
MIT released a report in 2015 highlighting 15 research opportunities that could boost the US Economy. It also noted that while other nations are boasting great discoveries, our commitment has fallen from 10% of the national budget in 1968 to less than 4% in 2015. A 2014 article illustrated some of the extraordinary yields our past commitment enabled, from GPS, to the discovery of cancer cells and other medical breakthroughs, to LiquiGlide, which was named by TIME magazine as among the best inventions of 2012. From the article:
For more than 60 years, MIT and other American research universities have led the world in discovery and innovation—with benefits to the entire country—due to federal funding. This vital support, however, is now on the decline. In 1960, for example, 55 percent of MIT’s campus revenue came from federal research dollars. By 2013, it fell to 22 percent. Chisholm says the decline is disrupting the research process.
'Researchers are focusing on projects with a high probability of results, because these projects have a better chance of getting funded. What’s happening is faculty are doing safe things because they know they’ll work. They take fewer risks, but then the probability of discovering something really new and exciting goes down."
The challenges we face are great, and we will not meet them by hoping that great men will resolve them on the way to seeking their own fortunes. There are some endeavors that require us to come together and make investments into the pursuit of knowledge for the common good. Basic scientific research is one of them. From dominoes to rockets, from a quirk of light to the computer, we don't always know what we will find when we veer off the beaten path. It may seem like we’re merely taking the scenic route. However, we rarely find something truly new when we stick to the main road; the innovations that touch billions of lives lie in yet-undiscovered country.
Spencer Thomas, is a PhD candidate in Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. He also happens to be Katie's brother. He studies metals at the atomic level; the way atoms are arranged in a material can change its properties. There are ways to take an ordinary metal and make it 10-100x stronger, but they return to normal over time by a process called grain growth. In his recent publication in Nature Communications, he develops a rudimentary theory, backed by simulations, for understanding the fundamental mechanisms of grain growth and what they mean for attempts to stabilize these materials. While we and many involved in the study of very small things are excited about that, here we look forward to sharing with you other things that stimulate his very sharp mind.