The Decline of US Science

The silence of the Bells

In the USA’s best years, ‘Bell Labs’ was something to be proud of. It did the groundwork on which economic success could be built. But then the USA decided that low consumer prices were everything and undermined the basis on which Bell Labs had flourished.

“French company Alcatel subsumed Bell’s shrunken remains into the “Alcatel-Lucent research community”. The Bell Labs name remains, but it now employs just 1000, down from a peak of 25,000.

“In its heyday – which lasted decades – Bell Labs had a reputation as a bastion of scientific excellence. To understand how it achieved this, and to grasp just how big a hole its demise has left, it is important to go back to its birth in 1925, as the central research group for the American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation, AT&T. Run as a private yet state-regulated monopoly, the company did everything from manufacturing telephone equipment to renting phones. Maintaining this service across a country the size of the US was a considerable challenge. At the same time it was pursuing new technologies, including the first system to synchronise sound with motion pictures, and early fax machines and televisions.

“All this meant learning more about the fundamentals of electronics, audio and communications, and it was here that Bell Labs excelled. Two years after it was founded, Bell Labs researcher Clinton Davisson observed electron diffraction, confirming that matter can behave like waves, for which he earned half of the 1937 Nobel prize in physics. Other early successes included Harry Nyquist’s explanation of thermal noise in electrical resistors, and Karl Jansky’s discovery of radio waves from the centre of the galaxy. In later years Bell Labs scientists made key contributions to solid-state physics, invented the transistor, developed information theory and discovered the cosmic microwave background…

“After years of litigation, AT&T spun off its regional telephone service as seven separate companies in 1984, ending the decades of cosy monopoly. A dozen years later, it spun off most of Bell Labs along with its equipment division as Lucent Technologies, which initially prospered but then stumbled badly…” (From issue 2589 of New Scientist magazine, 03 February 2007, page 18)

From Newsnotes, March 2007.

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