11 September

Valuing New Ideas with an Open Mind

C.H. Townes on "game changing" events

Nobel laureate C.H. Townes prizes retaining an open mind.

With it, he claims, America got to the moon on time and budget. Without it, he intimates, General Motors eminence went from American greatness to American cluelessness.

Believe him - he brought you the laser, modern fiber communications, an understanding of the cosmos, and countless other "game changing" events.

Because they are "game changers" - listen and you could win, don't listen and you will lose.

And what you didn't know - he took on Vannevar Bush, an early opponent of the Apollo program, where in his losing we all won. Read more...

Dr. C. H. Townes spoke today at SETI.

When I went to Berkeley, Professor Townes, while a lot younger - he's now 93 - was so much in demand he was almost never seen.
Yet he had a fantastic influence on science, government, and industry.The way he speaks of it now, the principle issue restraining effectiveness has been having an open mind.

Sounds trite, doesn't it? Would you think losing GM and civilization changing moments like with Apollo are also trite?

Townes vividly recalls John Von Neumann, as having flippantly writing off "amplification by stimulated emission" as being unworkable and walking off, leaving him cold. But then 15 minutes later, spontaneously returned, withdrawed his rejection, and admitting that after further thought, such was a workable and an excellent concept.Which only reminds us not only of Von Neumann's genius, but of the worth he placed on having an open mind.

If you think that this was the only example, or that even after lasers started lasing, minds became open, Townes cites a continuing chorus of "no, can't believe you can take it further" for decades. It's still not over - new science in lasers are still being conceived.

In the financial community (and industry in general), this isn't so. Some of my worst moments have been when an investor or partner has said "I have changed my mind and refuse to reconsider ever again".

One tries to make "gut" level decisions, and not wreck instinct by letting it switch back and forth like a gate. You don't want to poison your gut instinct - the fear is that this can be deadly.

The issue here is the degree than intuition verses intellect, or, mathematically described as inductive verse deductive reasoning are at odds. Some believe deductive can poison inductive - implying the need for what the Brits call "bloody mindedness". Our current American president refers to this as "resolve".

Townes experience is that this is a fallacy - John Pierce of Cal Tech, an opponent of Apollo alongside Bush, wouldn't consent to meeting Mueller, saying that "something not worth being done I won't have anything to do with".

Townes had run into George Mueller, who had been a student he had known once, and had ended up running the Apollo program, and had mentioned Bush's criticisms. All but Pierce agreed to meet Mueller, and each supplied valuable criticism to Mueller that was taken back inside the program.

Even with that, Bush continued to be an opponent of Apollo, simply on the grounds of not believing that a government program could ever achieve it, much less within budget and time restrictions, but agreed his opinion turned out wrong when it did, and that in the end his opinion had not been justified by fact, circumstance, or failure to execute. For Townes, it meant the end of being at MIT, and caused him to move on to Berkeley.

In other words, Vannevar Bush's gut instinct had mislead. It was poisoned anyways by willful ignorance, masquerading as sticking with one's gut instinct.

GM's board also had the instinct not to change - "what's good for GM is good for America". Another victim of the same poison?

Townes sees this more as rigid fundamentalism that denies the open mind, and that it can be found in science, religion, and business to equal damage.

Trust your gut always? Trust but verify always. Don't be a victim of one's own ignorance. Balance inductive with deductive - too much of one can be a poison as well to both.

[For another view on C. H. Townes, read The Archetype Physicist Entrepreneur Speaks on Exploration and Success]

Posted by william at 02:09 | Comments (0) | Trackbacks (0)
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