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The Importance of Basic Research in Physics and of MIT Science: The Endless Frontier: The Continuing Relevance of Vannevar Bush

10/05/2007 10:30 AM 6-120
Charles H. Townes, HM, Professor of Physics, The University of California, Berkeley; 1964 Nobel Laureate in Physics; Shirley Ann Jackson, '68, PhD '73, President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Description: Two science luminaries pay tribute to MIT's new Green Center for Physics in this first session of the symposium.

Nobel laureate Charles Townes makes a case for the centrality of basic research in advancing both the U.S. economy and society. Townes recounts how at Bell Laboratories, where he worked in the 1940s, a friend examining resistance in copper wires -found a funny effect" _ he had stumbled on the basic principles of the transistor. This incidental discovery led to a revolutionary innovation that has helped transform the world. From personal experience, Townes knows there's a reluctance to fund scientific work that has no immediate rewards. When Townes was developing the laser, many -thought it was a nice idea, but asked, 'What good is it?'" Townes said lawyers didn't see a point in a patent because -light had never been used for communications." Says Townes, -You can see the resistance to good ideas. You've got to have new ideas and society has to be open to them. That's what physics and basic science is doing." The many unexpected discoveries that spring up in the course of basic research -pay off enormously," but the U.S. public and politicians must be reminded of this fact, to prevent a crippling erosion of national scientific and technological growth.

Shirley Ann Jackson draws inspiration from MIT alumnus Vannevar Bush, who helped mobilize the best U.S. R&D talent during World War 2. Bush overcame scientists' -skepticism and even antagonism toward the concept of federal funding," says Jackson, promoting collaboration with the government. MIT Radiation Laboratory scientists helped develop electronic countermeasures for the deadly buzz bombs that terrorized Londoners during the war. In peacetime, Bush recommended to President Truman the continued marriage of government, industry and science -- weaving in the humanities and social sciences, too. Bush believed the results of research could be -adapted readily to shifting national needsand could assist not only in national security but in general economic growth and quality of life," says Jackson. Bush's blueprint helped justify a massive infusion of federal money into R&D for many decades. But today, this investment has shrunken to historic lows, says Jackson. -50 years after Sputnik," she says, -we need to focus on another great global challenge: energy security and sustainability." This is a -race against time," requiring multi-sector collaboration, rooted in fundamental research, with no product in mind. Jackson calls for a rejuvenation -on a massive scale" in basic research and education, comparable to the university-government-industry mobilization that began during World War 2.

About the Speaker(s): Shirley Ann Jackson is the former president and Chairman of the Board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the American Philosophical Society, and the Council on Foreign Relations. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Physical Society. Jackson is a trustee of the Brookings Institution and a lifetime member of the MIT Corporation.

Jackson is a director of IBM, FedEx, Marathon Oil, Medtronic and PSEG. She served as chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1995-1998.

Jackson holds an S.B. in Physics and a Ph.D. in Theoretical Elementary Particle Physics from MIT, as well as 44 honorary doctoral degrees. She received the 2007 Vannevar Bush Award for "a lifetime of achievements in scientific research, education, and senior statesman-like contributions to public policy." Charles H. Townes was awarded the Nobel Prize for his role in the invention of the maser and laser. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Royal Society of London. He has received numerous honors, including NASA's Distinguished Public Service Medal; the Medal of Honor of Electrical and Electronics Engineers; and the Founders' Award of the National Academy of Engineering. Townes also holds the 2005 Templeton Prize and the 2006 Vannevar Bush Medal.

Townes earned his B.S. in Physics and a B.A. in Modern Languages from Furman University. He received an M.S. in Physics at Duke University and a Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology. He worked at Bell Labs, Columbia University, and MIT, among other places, before starting at Berkeley.

Host(s): School of Science, Department of Physics

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MIT World — special events and lectures

MIT World — special events and lectures

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