THREE DEGREES ABOVE ZERO: Bell Labs in the Information Age by Jeremy Bernstein

THREE DEGREES ABOVE ZERO: Bell Labs in the Information Age

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This collection of pieces about the life and times of Bell Laboratories, the research arm of AT&T, is vintage Bernstein (Hans Bethe, Science Observed): a neat blend of personalities and science, tinged with divestiture-poignancy. (Bernstein takes pains to assure readers that the book is spontaneous and unrehearsed.) The Labs--headquartered at Murray Hill, N.J., employing 25,000--have been unique among industrial facilities, allowing a rare mix of basic and applied research, fostering an even rarer cross-disciplinary hookup. And there are no academic hassles: no grants to write, tenure to seek, rivals to fear. Of course, rebellions and management wrinkles had to be ironed out, but overall the atmosphere encouraged freewheeling. The results paid off with invention of the transistor, exploitation of masers and lasers, discoveries confirming the Big Bang theory, findings about fundamental brain physiology. . . down to today's commercial interest in computers and information systems. Bernstein divides the content into four sections: Bits (computers); The Solid State (transistors and their fallout); Telephony (from Alexander Graham Bell to fiberoptic cables); Three Degrees--the remanent temperature of the cosmos. In each section two or three top scientists do much of the talking in seamless monologues that include personal background, how they got to the labs, the nature of their work, and subsequent discoveries. Bernstein fills in the science with sufficient detail for the serious, but not so as to discourage the neophyte. Concluding remarks by director Arno Penzies--who, with co-Nobelist Robert Wilson pointed radio antennae at the heavens to take the cosmic temperature--suggest that a Glorious Future Does Lie Ahead.

Pub Date: Sept. 18th, 1984
Publisher: Scribners