APS News

The Wealth of Nations

By Andrew M. Sessler, APS President and Francis Slakey, APS Public Information

A version of this editorial appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 20, 1998


There was a time when a nation's future was determined simply by its store of gold. Those kingdoms faded, and their warriors' armor now hangs in dusty museum cases. Today, a nation's wealth is measured by its scientific ideas, and the idea warriors are trained in university laboratories. The chiefs may be in Washington, but in March the warriors came to California for the largest physics meeting in the world.

A century ago, science was still in the backwash of government priorities. The President would have been thrown into an asylum if he claimed to see a future where the top three diseases were eradicated and our life expectancy doubled. Yet, it all came about - even if we do still stub our toes getting out of bed in the morning. Moreover, the nations that pursued those scientific ideas are now the most prosperous in the world.

The government gave civilian science a whirl fifty years ago. One early investment was $50,000 toward creating a new source of microwaves. At the same time, Bell Labs let a few obscure scientists tinker with paper clips and germanium. Out popped the laser and transistor, and eventually Silicon Valley's semiconductor industry. That industry is now the heart of California's economy. To the rest of the nation, it's the very identity of California. OK, so maybe surfing is.

Today, the scientific challenge resonates with scores of politicians. Last October, four Senators wrote a bipartisan bill to double the federal investment in science over ten years. In February, they wrote to their colleagues, explaining how science "drives future economic growth." By mid-March, they had netted eight more co-sponsors, including both California Senators.

The Administration is also talking science. In the State of the Union Address, President Clinton announced a "1st Century Research Fund." In February, he forecast a future "where wars on cancer and AIDS have long since been won; where the benefits of science are broadly shared in countries both rich and poor."  Tall tales? Hardly. It's all quite doable stuff. If he'd said we'll tame El Ni$o, now that would be tough.

While all this was going on in Washington, scientists were busy forging new ideas. In March, they emerged from their labs and arrived in Los Angeles for a week-long clash. Five thousand physicists attended, bringing a thousand new ideas and maybe 2,000 clean shirts.

A few ideas will be closely watched by California industrialists. The semiconductor industry benefits from an astonishing engineering trend: the number of transistors that can be squeezed onto a wafer of silicon doubles every eighteen months. The steady improvement feeds the public craving for smaller, more powerful computers. The craving drives an industry that annually manufactures more transistors than the total number of raindrops that fall on California in a year. Well, maybe not this year.

But, silicon technology won't last forever. To maintain the trend, there need to be some breakthrough scientific ideas. At the APS March Meeting, scientists from Cal Tech discussed "quantum computing" and "spintronics" - radical alternatives that could reduce transistors to the size of a few atoms. Scientists from Stanford described "holographic data storage" - a technique that could store all of Pat Boone's recordings on a single CD. That way, we could throw them all away at once.

The prosperity of the next generation will be built on a few of the scientific ideas discussed in California a few months ago. The next great industry, the next history-shaping paradigm, it starts at such meetings as a raw scientific idea. In March, we had a chance to peek at the future of the nation.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin