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Mon Sep 9, 02019, 11:00PM UTC

Safi Bahcall

Long-term Loonshots: The Science of Phase Transitions and the Course of World History

Long-term Loonshots: The Science of Phase Transitions and the Course of World History

According to Safi Bahcall, the people,  companies, institutions and governments that drive progress take  advantage of both the creativity that generates new ideas, and the  logistical discipline that can take them to scale.  The best leaders are the ones that love their "creatives" and "soldiers"  equally.

According to Safi Bahcall, the people,  companies, institutions and governments that drive progress take  advantage of both the creativity that generates new ideas, and the  logistical discipline that can take them to scale.  Creatives need the  open environment of loonshot nurseries.  Soldiers need the structure and  hierarchy of a franchise. Both are essential to long-term success, and  the best leaders are the ones that love their creatives and soldiers  equally.

Safi Bahcall is a second-generation physicist, a biotech entrepreneur, and former public-company CEO, and the author of the 2019 NYT Bestseller — Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries. He received his BA summa cum laude from Harvard and his PhD in physics from Stanford, where he worked with Lenny Susskind in particle physics (the science of the small) and the Nobel laureate Bob Laughlin in condensed matter physics (the science of the many). He was a Miller Fellow in physics at UC Berkeley (the school of the many). After working for three years as a consultant for McKinsey, Safi co-founded a biotechnology company developing new drugs for cancer. He led its IPO and served as its CEO for 13 years. In 2008, he was named E&Y New England Biotechnology Entrepreneur of the Year. In 2011, he worked with President Obama’s council of science advisors (PCAST) on the future of national research.

Safi Bahcall
Safi Bahcall


Phase Changes

A lot of good ideas get trapped in the basements of human  organizations.  Even the brightest of teams can kill the best ideas.  To  explain why, it’s instructive to think about what happens to water at  32 degrees Fahrenheit.  At 33, the material is all water – fluid and  moving, dominated by the forces of entropy.  At 31, the material is a  block of ice – rigid and impenetrable, dominated by the binding energy  of the molecules of H2O.  At 32 degrees, however, the two forces are in  perfect balance, and the material is a mixture of ice crystals and fluid  water, flowing but ready to snap into rigid crystal if the temperature  drops.  As human organizations age and get bigger, then tend to cool and  behave more like a block of ice.

Similar situations happen in traffic.  Many vehicles can move  steadily at high speeds on a superhighway.  But a small disturbance in  traffic flow, caused by a single sudden tap on the brakes, can cascade  into a logjam, as each subsequent driver has to hit the brakes  harder.  The result can be a jamiton with a solid block of cars  extending for miles. Smooth flow can become jammed if signaling and  communication breaks down – another hazard for large human  organizations.

Structure can make a difference in whether teams, companies and  organizations get jammed up, or whether they can bring great new ideas  successfully to market.   In small companies that remain open and fluid,  good ideas are more easily generated. This is the water phase of an  organization. Developing great new products depends on the chaotic and  visionary attributes of creative teamwork.  These are the key attributes  of a loonshot nursery.

Larger, more mature organizations with established business channels  and logistical expertise can more easily drive products to scale in  competitive markets.  This requires rigidity and hierarchy – the marks  of the ice phase of an organization.  When a product goes to market,  schedules need to be met, quality needs to be maintained, and  reliability is paramount.  These are the key attributes of a great  franchise organization.

Loonshot and Franchise do not mix well unless the organization can  maintain the phase transition, like ice and water held at 32  degrees.  This requires clear focus and an extraordinary balance on the  part of the organization’s leaders.  Loonshot people are very different  from franchise people.  A good leader needs to strive for the balance  that will let both succeed and to cultivate communication and  understanding between the two groups.  A leader who emphasizes franchise  too much ends up with lots of good ideas trapped in the basement.

Finding the Balance

One such leader was Vannevar Bush.  In the summer of 1940, he quit  his job as dean of engineering at MIT and went to Washington to meet  with president Roosevelt.  At that time, German U-boats were delivering  devastating losses on allied shipping, the German air force dominated  the skies, and the Germans were working on the atomic bomb.  The  prospects for allied forces, even with the subsequent entry of the US in  the conflict, were grim.

Bush knew that a groundbreaking loonshot nursery was required,  completely separate from the huge and excellent franchise of the US  military.  With Roosevelt’s approval the Office of Scientific Research  and Development was launched.  OSRD was responsible for several of the  technological developments that helped win the war, including  development of high-resolution microwave radar and modifications of the  radar visual display that allowed allied planes to decimate the U-boat  fleet.  Bush also helped initiate the Manhattan Project, and his 1945  report to the President, “Science, The Endless Frontier” set the stage  for the creation of the National Science Foundation and similar  federally supported but independent science-based organizations, and for  the military’s own loonshot nursery, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research  Projects Agency.)

A successful organization stays at 32 degrees, where both ice and  water coexist and create a dynamic equilibrium.  But the ice crystals  (soldiers and flowing water molecules (artists), don’t naturally  understand each other.  Soldiers need reliability and dependability –  they tend not to ask questions. Artists need risk and free-thinking –  they question everything.   Strong, resilient organizations need  both.  Leaders need to be gardeners, cultivating both the Soldiers and  the Artists and managing the tension between them.  Failures in  leadership result in an insufficient transfer of ideas between the  Artists and Soldiers, or outright conflict.

Lessons for Civilization

One of the great leaps forward in human progress began with a simple  question:  how do we understand the motion of the sun, moon and  planets? For many centuries, human progress was marked by the prosperity  and longevity of the world’s great empires.  China and India together  had about half of the world GDP in the 1st Century.  Islam flourished in  the 9th – 13th Century, dominating the Mediterranean and the Middle  East.  But these impressive franchises were slow to change and directed  from the top down.  The concept of independent and inviolable “laws of  nature” that could be studied by anyone was a threat to the established  order and the Rule of the Divine.  It got stuck in the basement.

In contrast, the disorganized and chaotic environment in northern  Europe coming out of the Middle Ages, with competing city-states vying  for attention and control, proved to be a fertile ground for one of the  most impressive loonshot nurseries in history. In this nursery, the  Scientific Method was developed, and its success validated the idea that  the “truth” about nature could be discovered and was not a function of  divine fiat.

Many of the advances seemed to have uncertain prospects.  Tyco Brahe  (1546-1601) was a well-educated Danish noble that reshaped the study of  astronomy – and was then kicked out of Denmark.  He subsequently found  favor in the Bohemian court in Prague, and with his student Johannes  Kepler (1571-1630), established the mathematically rigorous foundations  for modern astronomy.  The great English scientist Isaac Newton  (1642-1726) later built on that foundation. The prospects and the  fortunes of modern Western Civilization were radically accelerated by  the loonshot nurseries of 17thcentury Europe.

Balancing in the Future

In the Q&A, Safi responded to a question asking about current  world powers, and the extent to which any of them grasped the importance  of loonshot nurseries to historical progress.  Safi observed that the  United States has had a significant advantage in managing the tension  between Loonshot and Franchise activities since World War 2.  From that  point forward, US dominance continued to grow. He observed, however,  that other countries, significantly, China and Russia, seem to have  figured out how to maintain the phase change balance. There is some  likelihood our long-term competitive lead will shrink.   There are also  anti-science threads that seemed to have gained ground in our country  and that threaten our continued progress.  The future is not certain.

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