Networking

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Managers are blind to dazzling ideas

They would rather plod on because they just can't fathom the consequences...

Written on a narrow boat on the Oxford Canal travelling at 3mph while being overtaken by pedestrians and cyclists, with a 70mph motorway on one side, a 125mph train on the other, and a 400mph aircraft flying overhead. Dispatched to silicon.com via 3G.

Managers always want to know why we need to go faster or do something they can't fathom. They don't realise these inventions will lead to untold riches.

We all have our personal markers for the passing of time. For most, life is punctuated by all the usual stuff - births, deaths, marriages, education, jobs and promotions. Then there are the unusual things: in my case these centre on technology, discoveries, and solutions beyond conventional wisdom.

In the late 1970s I was working on my PhD. One aspect demanded very narrow electrical impulses of high energy, but no commercial equipment was available, and indeed, there was nothing published. I was in virgin territory. After a while I developed equipment that would generate pulses of less than two nanoseconds duration and greater than 350V peak.

World-class team
As a part of this development I spent a short time at The National Bureau of Standards (NBS) in Boulder, Colorado with a team who were world class in the field. Their objectives were different to mine with electrical pulses in the region of 20 to 200 picoseconds - that is, between 10 and 100 times faster than mine - but only at 1V peak or so.

Fast-forward to today. I recently visited a university where new leaders in the field have gone all-optical to generate pulses down to 200 attoseconds. That speed is close to one million times faster than the NBS in the 1970s and 10 million faster than my efforts. But the really interesting aspect is the vastly greater energy they can now produce.

In the 1970s the managers of the day were asking why we should ever want to go so fast and what possible use could it all be. I've tried to answer that question in this chart:

Perer cochrane data sampling

(Image credit: Peter Cochrane)

Starting on the far right I have shown what a conventional shutter camera can picture and then advanced 1,000-fold at a time through optical strobes or flashing lights, electronic sampling, and on to laser sampling or coherent flashing light, with molecular and atomic manipulation at the leading edge or on the horizon.

Had we given up on speed we would know far less about everything fundamental, and the new nano and bio industries would now be impossible.

Certainly there is always a case for building a better microscope. The more we can see and manipulate the more we experience and understand. It is that fundamental.

And what happens if you don't? You finish up metaphorically owning a barge on a disused canal while the rest of the world flies by.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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