AIP | Matters
-- -- March 18, 2013
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Fred Dylla Director's Matters

By H. Frederick Dylla, Executive Director & CEO

The electronic water cooler

The recent decision by the new Yahoo CEO to rein-in telecommuting in favor of “all hands on deck” in corporate headquarters has unleashed a national conversation about the business strategy of telecommuting. Are group creativity and innovation better inspired by face-to-face interactions than by modern electronic connections?

Twenty years after the web moved from interconnecting high-energy physics labs to being an essential tool of commerce, high-bandwidth connectivity has certainly made it easier for employees to carry on many tasks that once required their presence in the workspace. Such remote activity has obvious advantages to child-rearing parents and commuters in congested areas. But do the advantages of this relatively newfound connectivity compensate for the loss of physical interaction in the workplace?

The Idea actory coverIt should be noted that even without telecommuting, electronic communications often suppress in-person communications because of their ease. I have often urged neighboring colleagues to forgo email and walk down the hall to have a face-to-face conversation.

In responding to a thoughtful March 2nd editorial published in The New York Times on this controversy, a letter to the editor was published by Norman Axelrod (scroll down to the third letter), a former Bell Labs employee, who touted his institution’s iconic reputation as a hotbed of innovation—in part because of its working environment at both its Murray Hill and Holmdel, NJ, locations.

The environment fostered frequent encounters of staff in hallways, resource centers such as libraries, and especially in the lunchroom. When you talk to a former Bell Labs employee or read last year’s superb Bell Labs history book authored by Jon Gertner aptly called The Idea Factory, management considered real estate to be a major part of the grand design in creating a culture for personal interaction. Bell Labs’ unmatched creativity also stemmed from the hiring of a broad array of scientists, engineers, and technicians that spanned the whole range of skills needed to develop communication technologies—a practice that became a tradition for most of the 20th century. Moreover, the AT&T-managed monopoly with the US government allowed for stable, long-term funding of Bell Labs until the court-ordered breakup of the Bell system in 1984. The Bell Labs real estate was designed to encourage and enable the interdisciplinary staff to mix both formally for the task at hand, and informally, to take advantage of a serendipitous meeting of the minds.

I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with many Bell Labs colleagues over my 40-year career, and have come to admire and envy what they experienced. I have also seen where similar cross connections of creative people have encouraged innovative behavior. I worked for two modest-sized DOE national labs and each required a highly interdisciplinary staff. The communal lunchrooms at these two labs gave birth to more good ideas than the sum total of motivational courses to which we subjected our staffs. I had the pleasure of working for the founding director of Jefferson Lab, Hermann Grunder, who stacked every lunch table with a pencil and notepad to make sure a good thought didn’t lose its fidelity on a napkin.

One of my jobs at Jefferson Lab was fostering collaborations between the laboratory and neighboring research universities. I quickly became aware of the geographical disadvantages of modern universities, where academic departments are often enshrined in separate buildings. As I made my campus visits, I encountered two independent groups at one university doing laser-induced chemistry studies; they were separated by a street and two departmental bureaucracies. Had they talked to each other, both groups could have strengthened their efforts. They could have boosted their power collectively—but didn’t. At a second campus, I found a trio of scientists all working on nanocrystalline diamond—one an experimentalist, one a device builder, and one a modeler—but none of the three had ever talked to each other about collaborating and combining their obvious strengths.

My personal experience in the sciences and engineering compels a strong bias for staff co-location—not only for the obvious tasks of designing, building, and testing machines from small instruments to gargantuan particle accelerators, but also for the day-to-day chance collaboration that creates a serendipitous solution to a shared problem. I don’t see this being replaced by a virtual presence on a handheld device or laptop screen. Now, I might change my mind when my laser buddies usher in a full 3D holographic presence—but how will we share the same cup of caffeinated conversation starter?

In a March 14 entry to Physics Today’s Science and the Media department, Media Analyst Steve Corneliussen examines articles and opinion pieces that invoke memory of an R&D institution "designed to encourage serendipitous encounters." See Is legendary Bell Labs the US's "gold standard for innovation"?

Physics Resource Matters

JMP in China

JMP in China

Attendees of QIP 2013 show their support of JMP at the journal’s booth.

AIP Publishing’s China office recently gave the Journal of Mathematical Physics (JMP) a strong presence at the 16th Workshop on Quantum Information Processing, hosted at Tsinghua University, China, from January 21–25. JMP was represented by Xingtao Ai, AIP Publishing’s China office manager, who was able to talk with leaders in the field as well as several JMP Editorial Advisory Board members. USB drives containing a JMP special issue on quantum information were distributed to attendees.

Physics Resource Matters

SPS: a gateway to Member Societies

One of the main objectives of the Society of Physics Students’ is to be the student “gateway” to the AIP Member Societies and other professional organizations. This is facilitated in many ways. For example, students receive a free membership in one of the Member Societies when they join SPS. Additionally, SPS partners with many of these societies to hold research sessions, receptions, and career panels at their annual meetings.

SPS reporter Amelia Plunk (right) poses with Barbara Wolff-Reichert

SPS reporter Amelia Plunk (right) poses with Barbara Wolff-Reichert in front of TeachSpin’s booth at the AAPT 2013 Winter Meeting in New Orleans, LA.

SPS broadens student participation at these meetings through the SPS Reporter Awards, which offer travel support for SPS chapters or individual students reporting on a national scientific society meeting for SPS. The resulting articles often appear as feature articles on the SPS website and in SPS publications. Member Societies are notified when reports go online or are featured in SPS publications, and the articles may also be used in the host societies’ publications. The program provides unique opportunities for students to interact with prominent scientists. For example, SPS reporters at APS, AAS, and some other meetings receive full access to the pressroom and press conferences. Students are given the authority to interview scientists whom they might not have otherwise approached.

SPS reporter Lois Smith of the University of Colorado at Boulder commented on her experience at the “Women in Science” mixer at the AGU Fall 2012 Meeting in San Francisco, CA: “My experiences at this event—and the rest of the conference—affirmed my belief I can do anything, regardless of my gender, and reminded me that there’s an international sup­port network of female scientists out there.” Her full article, “Wow, What a Week!” is available on the SPS website. Web visitors will also find many recent reports, including those covering meetings of AAPT and AAS, as well as the Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics.

Physics Resource Matters

Astronomy Ambassadors

AAS AmbassadorsThe American Astronomical Society, in partnership with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, members of the Center for Astronomy Education, and other organizations active in science education and public outreach (EPO), is creating a new program for young astronomers just starting their careers. The project involves a series of professional-development workshops and a community of practice designed to help improve participants’ communication skills and effectiveness in doing outreach to students and the public. Called Astronomy Ambassadors, this new program will provide mentoring and training experiences for new members of our profession, from advanced undergraduates to postdocs, providing access to resources and a network of contacts within the astronomy EPO community. Continue reading about this program on the AAS website.

Coming Up

March 18–22

  • APS March Meeting (Baltimore, MD)
  • AIP/APS Industrial Physics Forum (March 17–19)

*All AIP Events listed below are in College Park, MD

Saturday, March 23

  • AIP Liaison Committee for Underrepresented Minorities (LCURM) meeting

Wednesday, April 3

  • AIP Audit Committee meeting
  • AIP Executive Committee meeting

Thursday, April 4

  • Assembly of Society Officers

Friday, April 5

  • AIP Governing Board meeting
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