A younger Carver Mead

Chip daddy Mead: ‘A bunch of big egos’ are strangling science

The scientific revolution has stalled, here’s how to kickstart it

By Rik Myslewski in San Francisco

Posted in Science, 20th February 2013 01:52 GMT

ISSCC Microelectronics pioneer, Caltech professor emeritus, and all-around smart guy Carver Mead believes that the scientific revolution that began with the discovery of special relativity and quantum mechanics has stalled, and that it’s up to us to kickstart it.

“A bunch of big egos got in the way,” he told his audience of 3,000-plus chipheads at the International Soild-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) in San Francisco on Monday.

Much more work needs to be done to restart that revolution, Mead said, with the goal of explaining in an intuitive way how all matter in the universe relates to and affects all other matter, and how to explore those interrelationships in a way that isn’t “buried in enormous piles of obscure mathematics.”

If you’re not familiar with Mead, you should be. Now 78, he received the National Medal of Technology in 2003, cited for his “pioneering contributions to the microelectronics field, that include spearheading the development of tools and techniques for modern integrated-circuit design, laying the foundation for fabless semiconductor companies, catalyzing the electronic-design automation field, training generations of engineers that have made the United States the world leader in microelectronics technology, and founding more than 20 companies including Actel Corporation, Silicon Compilers, Synaptics, and Sonic Innovations.”

Those credentials have earned Mead the right to be listened to — although he’d be the first to argue that mere credentials and achievements don’t guarantee intelligent thought. In fact, they can cause intellectual ossification.

To illistrate that point, Mead told the story of how Charles Townes, the inventor of the laser and maser, took his ideas to the leading quantum-mechanics nabobs at the time, Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg.

“They both laughed at him, and basically said, ‘Sonny, you just don’t seem to understand how quantum mechanics works’,” Mead told his ISSCC audience. “Well, history has shown that it wasn’t Charlie who didn’t know how quantum mechanics works, it was the pontifical experts in the field who didn’t know how it worked.”

Mead said that we’re all taught that there was a revolution in scientific thought that started with relativity and quantum mechanics. “Actually, that’s not the case,” he said. “A revolution is when something goes clear around. And what happened starting in the first 25 years of the 20th century was that there was the beginning of a revolution, and it got stuck about a quarter of the way around.”

And it remain stuck, he believes. “What we’re living with today is a bunch of mysteries and misconceptions that came about partly because people couldn’t imagine nature being as interesting as it really is, and partly because a bunch of big egos got in the way and wouldn’t let the revolution proceed.”

From Mead’s point of view, the key to a more intuitive explanation of the universe lies in not only the interrelationships of matter and forces, but also a better understanding of the electron. “We need to treat the wave functions of our electrons as real wave functions,” he said. “I have found personally that I had to go all the way back and reformulate the laws of electromagnetism, starting with the quantum nature of the electron as the foundation.”

But it’s those interrelationships that most fascinate Mead – that, and how the origins of science focussed not on a wide-ranging study of interrelationships, but rather on experimental isolation.

Read more: Chip daddy Mead: 'A bunch of big egos' are strangling science • The Register.

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