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Growing up in Silicon Valley

  1. Sep 9, 2014 #1
    Fairbanks Alaska is a long ways from Palo Alto, California. I was born and raised pretty much right "down the barrel" of the Stanford Linear Accelerator. When I was in fifth grade at Las Lomitas Elementary school, our teacher, Mrs. Tendick, took us on a field trip of SLAC before it was finished...and I was warped forever.

    Actually at the time, it was mostly Vacuum Tube Valley, and it was as well known for aeronautics as it was for electronics. Moffet Field was as prominent then as Apple Computer is now. My dad was an aeronautical engineer, designing helicopters at Hiller Helicopters, across the Bay, when there was almost nothing there. (Imagine that!)

    In any case, being an impressionable young lad in such a rich scientific and technological environment was a privilege not everyone had...and I am eternally gratefull for that. I grew up knowing "how to do stuff."

    I was never great at math as a kid, but I liked all the stuff you could do with it. My dad made me learn how to use a slide rule at the age of eight, which didn't hurt at all. But I was still more interested in making vile chemicals and slinging projectiles around than doing calculations.

    After a few decades of public ho-hum about atom smashers and such, it's good to see SLAC back in the news again, and the potential of free electron X-ray lasers are grabbing everyone's attention. I think we Americans still have a few tricks up our sleeves that not every technological civilization has.

    Life and circumstances took me away from Silicon Valley 40 years ago, but never far from science. I spent many years working at Hipas Observatory, here in Fairbanks (the predecessor to HAARP), as well as at HAARP itself, doing Auroral and Ionospheric research. I was saddened to see the decommissioning of both facilities (it looks like HAARP will suffer the wrecking ball before the year is out). We're still doing a lot of interesting ionospheric research here; we just had a very successful ionospheric rocket launch at Poker Flat early this year.

    I don't know if I'm an elder statesman of science yet, but I do have a few years under my belt. If I would have any advice to give, it would be to never let the poetry out of physics. If you know what that means, you don't need any explanation...if you don't know what that means, no explanation can help, and you might be happier doing something else.

    Almost anything pays better than scientific research...unless you win the Nobel Prize. To be a science researcher is to take a tacit vow of poverty...at least in most cases. There are some curious analogies between the lab and the monastery, by the way...perhaps not of them accidental. Think of monks like Sir Francis Bacon who was one of the fathers of the scientific method. Of course, science doesn't HAVE to be this way...but for a select few it probably does.

    One of my favorite authors, Paul Graham, who wrote "Hackers and Painters," brought up the proposition that Silicon Valley could have only happened in Silicon Valley. There are well-defined clusters of innovators. You need a certain critical mass of minds to make some things happen. Fairbanks Alaska, curiously enough, has MANY of the ingredients necessary for a Silicon Valley...but not the critical mass...we're still a very small town. In terms relative to population, however, we have an abundance of science happening up here.

    Anyway...just some random thoughts. Maybe some in this forum can identify.

  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 9, 2014 #2


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  5. Sep 9, 2014 #4


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    Funny, our paths have at least two points in common. I was born in Silicon Valley long before it was Silicon Valley (El Camino Hospital) and lived in Fairbanks for a year (took my junior year of chemistry there).

    I loved Fairbanks, and the people there were wonderful. But an innovative environment needs more than just critical mass. I have to wonder if an economic powerhouse could ever grow out of a place where nature tries earnestly to kill you about 7 months a year. There are just so many serious matters to worry about. Something stupid like running out of gas could turn nasty and result in your early demise.

    Well I lived there before cell phones, I guess that does change things a bit :biggrin:.

    Yeah, we've had so many sad threads that clearly show that when you ultimately have to rely on public funding for your work and/or pay, you'll never be rich, nor secure (unfortunately).
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