Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A color scientist's role

Here are some thoughts about a color scientist's role in society.

When people ask me what I do, I answer "color scientist," with scientist being the subject and color being the object. One reason is that when I just say "color" people ask me fashion or design questions, which I cannot answer because I am not a color consultant. My field is called "color science" and that makes me a "color scientist." But is it not arrogant calling oneself a scientist? After all, I am not wearing a lab coat…

"Scientist" is not a bragging word. It is a qualification that brings with it also social responsibilities. Bertolt Brecht has collected a lot of material on this subject collected in Werner Hecht's Materialien zu Brechts »Leben des Galilei«, so I'll just mention a short conversation I had last night.

Yesterday evening I attended as a guest the Computer History Museum Fellows Awards Dinner and Ceremony. I was cruising the room in which the cocktails were hosted to greet old buddies, when in one group somebody noted how many former or current PARC scientists were in the room, commenting on the huge impact they had in the valley.

Nobody attends the event for the food. There are many restaurants where you get incomparably better food for $500 per person. People attend such event for the air — or better, for what is in the air. Maybe "ether" is a more appropriate word than "air."

When I was working at Canon, I had the problem that my boss kept telling me that at my level I was not allowed to do technical work, that my role was to inspire people. This was a problem for me, because I am not an evangelist, quite the opposite. In fact, at my previous job at PARC, where we tended to work in a team of a talker and a doer, I was much more of a doer than a talker.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now know that my boss at Canon was right — at least in part. When you research as a scientist, you do not sit on a chair and squeeze your brains until a world-changing idea pops out. You can see this best in pharmaceutical research.

StaufenThe research for new drugs is very expensive, very difficult, and takes a long time for a team of people. With this you would suppose that a successful team then invents the miraculous drug that conquers yet another great disease, while everybody else is surprised and stands in awe. In reality, it is not like this. When you look at the patent awards, you will find out that there is always a small number of different companies that files for the same discovery a few weeks apart.

This is not what you would expect given the duration of the research and the secrecy in which the companies operate.

The explanation is that discoveries are in the air or ether. Discoveries happen when the time is ripe for them, and at that time many people will have the same insight with a time interval of a few weeks or months. Research is very expensive, it is a high risk investment. Timing is everything, otherwise you lose your investment.

Timing means that you need to be be at the right place at the right moment. This is why we are in an expensive location like Palo Alto, just a couple of freeway exits from the Computer History Museum. And this is why we spend $500 for a plate of ravioli — which allows us to get the buzz from the ether, emanating from all those reunited luminaries, before the guys working for the competition get it.

The social responsibility of scientists is put out their antennas and transcieve. You cannot do this kind of visceral networking with LinkedIn. You have to be there. There are no shortcuts, no miracles.

Scientists are like bees. A bee can be a busy bee, a worker bee, etc., but by itself it is not worth much. Wham!!! … and you can wack it out with a newspaper. Try that with a bee hive. The art of managing research is like the art of a bee keeper who has learned to create and groom a bee hive.

You are reading my contribution to society, emanating through the ether from my antenna. And this is where my manager at Canon had it wrong — you need to get your hands dirty and do real work, otherwise there is nothing to transmit and you do not know on which channel to tune in. This is why in the wardrobe separating their offices, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard kept a cart with an oscilloscope, a soldering iron, and small tools.

These days the difficulty is to survive without having your neck broken 24 years later when the job is done, as Dr. Faustus would have told you if his brother in law Mefistopheles had would not have grabbed him first that fatal day in 1539 and illustrated above.

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