"In the Sarnoff Tradition: Envisioning, Believing,
and Making It Happen"
Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Chief Operating Officer
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Seminar for Sarnoff Community
April 30, 2001
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I am honored and delighted to be here in Sarnoff country
- a place of ideas and innovation. David Sarnoff was
an icon of 20th century industrial innovation,
and it is a proud day for me to be invited back to
the place that still carries his name and where I
once worked on very exciting projects as a young engineer.
Before we get serious, let me share with you a tale
of levity as one way to describe the tension involved
in the important skill that Sarnoff displayed in managing
A man is flying in a hot air balloon and realizes he
is lost. He reduces height, spots a woman down below
and asks, "Excuse me, can you help me? I promised
to return the balloon to its owner but, I don't know
where I am."
The woman below says: "You are in a hot air balloon,
hovering approximately 350 feet above mean sea level
and 30 feet above this field. You are at 40 degrees
north latitude, and 75 degrees west longitude."
"You must be an engineer," says the balloonist.
"I am," replies the woman. "How did you know?"
"Well," says the balloonist, "everything you told me
is technically correct, but I have no idea what to
make of your information, and the fact is I am still
The woman below says, "You must be a manager."
"I am," replies the balloonist, "but how did you know?"
"Well," says the engineer, "you don't know where you
are, or where you are going. You have made a promise,
which you have no idea how to keep, and you expect
me to solve your problem. The fact is you are in the
exact same position you were in before we met, but
now it is somehow my fault."
The story has many interpretations as all of us in
this room have experienced. Among these, it does serve
to highlight, in opposition, the savvy bridging-skills
that Sarnoff brought to the national table for managing
Now, to more serious work. I have titled my remarks
today, In the Sarnoff Tradition: Envisioning, Believing,
and Making it Happen. Among poets, an expression
of good wishes is, " may the Muse visit you," in essence
meaning, may inspiration visit the poet. When I think
about David Sarnoff it seems to me he was always his
own Muse, an amazing wellspring of ideas. But what
made him unique was the tenacity with which he pursued
those inspirations. I'm sure you all know his often
quoted comment, "There are few things the mind can
conceive that science ultimately cannot accomplish."
That same tenacity carried over into his management.
Even when the new trend in American business turned
to diversification and conglomeration, which proved
both unhealthy and unsuccessful, Sarnoff stuck to
his fundamental beliefs. He had locked on a vision
that turned out to be elegant and sound.
In his biography of Sarnoff called The General,
Kenneth Bilby quotes two scholars in the Harvard Business
Review of 1980, 10 years after Sarnoff's death. They
wrote, "The key to long term success -- even survival
-- in business is what it has always been: to invest,
to innovate, to lead, to create value where none existed
before. Such determination, such striving to excel,
requires leaders -- not just controllers, market analysts
and portfolio managers." This was very much the Sarnoff
formula, and he never lost sight of it, even when
others followed the fashion of the times. His vision
of electronics, especially for telecommunications,
became the nation's vision for a long time.
In today's world, I believe he would understand well
the variety of global trends noted on this slide (slide
1) and would capitalize on each to create
wealth out of what some may view as societal dilemmas.
Indeed, he understood well the difference between
productivity and innovation (slide
2) and the related process of concurrent integration
described in the next slides (slide
In my remarks today, I want to stay with another component
of the Sarnoff legend. Even in the hardest of economic
times, he was determined that the last thing to be
cut was RCA's research budget.
As the Deputy Director of the National Science Foundation
where we focus on research and education across the
frontiers of science and engineering, I understand
his thinking and agree with it. I plan to talk about
some of the territories that the National Science
Foundation has identified as emerging fields and trends
of over-arching potential.
They comprise a group of five capabilities that help
to connect, recompose, and expand core science and
engineering disciplines. They encompass the concepts
and expertise that our present and future workforce
of scientists and engineers will require to succeed
and help the nation prosper. They are (slide
4) nanoscale, terascale, cognition, complexity,
and holism; I'll address each of them in the remainder
of this talk. David Sarnoff would have found unique
ways to utilize these capabilities. He would certainly
know how an integrated capability among these would
play well vis-a-vis Schumpeter's thesis of 'creative
At NSF, we are all about science and engineering. Our
task has been to foster the building of the nation's
science and engineering strength in order to strengthen
our economic and social future -- even though we don't
know what that future will be. In this process, we
support the disciplines in their constant effort to
reach the farthest frontier while more and more embracing
what happens at their interfaces.
With the community's peer advice, we do this by investing
in the most capable people with the most insightful
ideas. With them, we provide the risky opportunity
to advance a field in a new direction, accelerate
its pace and, increasingly, help it build a bridge
to another field.
Enter now the five priority capabilities that I mentioned.
Let me list them again, and then I'll address each
one. (slide 6)
We use the term nano to express nanoscale science
and engineering, things in the realm of a billionth
of a meter. Its focus is at the molecular and atomic
level of things, both natural and human-made. It was
a brief twenty years ago, with the invention of the
scanning/tunneling microscope, that we could first
observe molecules on a surface. Now our micro world
is becoming a nano world.
As you know, nanoscale is three orders of magnitude
smaller than most of today's human-made devices. To
get a feeling for what this means in terms of the
cosmos, let's look at this next slide. (slide
Nanotechnology gives us the ability to manipulate matter
one atom or molecule at a time. Nanostructures are
at the confluence of the smallest human-made devices
and the large molecules of living systems. Individual
atoms are a few tenths of a nanometer. To use
another comparison, (slide
8) DNA molecules are about 2.5 nanometers
wide. Biological cells, such as red blood cells, have
diameters in the range of thousands of nanometers.
Microelectromechanical systems are now approaching
this same scale. This suggests a most exciting prospect.
We are now at the point of being able to connect machines
to individual living cells.
Nano application is not completely new; it has already
been used in photography and in catalysis. But until
recently it was primarily confined to those areas.
Now, we will be able to build a "wish list" of properties
into structures large and small. We will design automobile
tires atom by atom. Perhaps of more interest to you
will be the nano-capability to pattern recording media
in nanoscale layers and dots. The information on a
thousand CDs could be packed into the space of a wristwatch.
Let's look at a few industries to see what nano might
hold for their futures. In the automotive and aeronautics
industries, we can foresee nanoparticle reinforced
materials for lighter bodies, external painting that
does not need washing, cheap non-flammable plastics,
and self-repairing coatings and textiles.
In the electronics and communications industries,
recording in all media will be able to be accomplished
in nanolayers and dots. This includes flat panel displays
and wireless technology. An entire range of new devices
and processes with startling ratios of improvement
await us across communication and information technologies.
It will be possible to vastly increase data storage
capacity and processing speeds. This will be accompanied
by both lower cost and improved power efficiency compared
to current electronic circuits.
In the field of chemicals and materials, we
foresee more catalysts that increase the energy and
combustion efficiency of chemical plants, super-hard
and tough (not brittle) drill bits and cutting tools,
and "smart"magnetic fluids for vacuum seals and lubricants.
In the burgeoning areas of pharmaceuticals, health
care and life sciences, we will see new nanostructured
drugs and drug delivery systems targeted to specific
sites in the body. Researchers anticipate biocompatible
replacements for body parts and fluids, and material
for bone and tissue regeneration.
In manufacturing, we can expect precision engineering
based on new generations of microscopes and measuring
techniques, and new processes and tools to manipulate
matter at the atomic level. These are just the beginning.
Every field and industry will be able to capitalize
on nano innovations.
The new nano capability brings together many
disciplines of science and engineering to work in
collaboration. Its scope and scale create an overarching,
enabling field, not unlike the role of information
The expansion of our nanocapability will depend on
insightful researchers envisioning -- imagining --
its possibilities -- talented people with good ideas
throughout academe and industry.
Terascale computing is shorthand for computing technology
that takes us three orders of magnitude beyond prevailing
computing capabilities. In the past, our system architectures
could handle only hundreds of processors. Now we work
with systems of thousands of processors. Shortly,
we'll connect millions of systems and billions of
'information appliances' to the Internet. Crossing
that boundary of 10^12th -- one trillion
operations per second -- launches us to new frontiers.
Take for example protein synthesis within a cell. It
requires 20 milliseconds for a nascent protein to
fold into its functional conformation. However, it
takes 40 months of processor time on current systems
to simulate that folding. With a terascale system,
we reduce that time to one day -- one thousand times
faster. Think what that means for the task of functional
genomics, that is, putting our DNA sequence knowledge
When we dramatically advance the speed of our capability
in any area we give researchers and industrialists
the mechanism to get to a frontier much faster or,
better yet in terms of NSF's mission, to reach a frontier
that had been, heretofore, unreachable, as well as
The revolution in information technologies connected
and integrated researchers and research fields in
a way never before possible. The nation's IT capability
has acted like 'adrenaline' to all of science and
engineering. A next step was to build the most advanced
computing infrastructure for researchers to use, while
simultaneously broadening its accessibility.
Fields like physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering
are high-end computational fields. Researchers need
the fastest machines to predict the behavior of storms,
or simulate 'protein folding,' or find the origin
of our rising sea level. Computer Science researchers
also need this capability to continue advancing their
Our vision here is to reach terascale competency and
catapult capability into a whole new era of science
and engineering. In essence, we want to create a "tera
universe or era" for science and engineering ... and
a freshly robust national "cyberinfrastructure." (slide
9) Within this infrastructure, we'll enjoy
tera-ops power, terabyte storage, terabit connectivity,
and tera-instrument interfaces.
Progress in 21st century science and engineering
depends upon access to world-class tools and infrastructure.
From past experience, we know that infrastructures
can either expand or inhibit our potential.
An infrastructure system can provide potential in
one era, but drag us into obsolescence in another
So, in a sense, infrastructure can be thought of as
'perishable.' This is an important understanding because
what is state-of-the-art today is conventional tomorrow.
As exciting and futuristic as terascale is now, someday
it will be eclipsed by something beyond today's furthest
And even the best tools are useless without well-trained
people who have the capacity to pose challenging questions,
conceptualize critical issues, identify opportunities,
and employ their skills to derive answers.
This brings me to the third capability we intend to
expand, cognition. The dictionary defines cognition
as the mental process by which knowledge is acquired.
Most of us would simply say, this is learning. Learning
is the foundation territory of all other capabilities,
human and institutional. Our understanding of the
learning process holds the key to tapping the potential
of every child, empowering a 21st century
workforce, and, in fact, maintaining our democracy.
From the last 30 years of research, we know that people,
both young and old, absorb and assimilate knowledge
in different ways, and in more than one way. So the
"science of learning" is a critical inquiry into how
people learn. (slide
More than any other species, humans are configured
to be the most flexible learners. Although much of
what we learn is outside of any formal instruction,
people are intentional learners, proactive in acquiring
knowledge and skills. Compulsory education in all
50 states dictates that children must attend school
until a certain age, an intentional learning environment.
Because of new tools and interdisciplinary research
investments, our understanding of the learning process
has changed dramatically in the past two decades.
A rich knowledge base in cognitive science has been
developed jointly by linguists, psychologists, philosophers,
computer scientists, engineers, and neuroscientists.
This has prompted us this past year to envision Science
of Learning Centers to complement and synergize our
Engineering Research Centers and Science and Technology
By focusing on cognition, we will advance our capability
in everything from teaching children how to read to
building human-like computers and robots. Industry
can capitalize on this knowledge in training initiatives,
in the manufacturing process, and in the development
of new products in a field that is blossoming. But,
fundamentally we will help empower people, and thus
empower the nation, all of which can lead to wealth
creation, and social progress currently unimaginable.
Now to the 4th and 5th capabilities,
complexity and holism. They act as two sides of a
coin to guide us in the best way to use our accumulated
knowledge of science and technology to discover new
knowledge and better understand how to use it.
Mitch Waldrop, in his book Complexity, writes
about a point we often refer to as "the edge of chaos."
That is, "where the components of a system never quite
lock into place, and yet never quite dissolve into
turbulence either...The edge of chaos is where new
ideas and innovative genotypes are forever nibbling
away at the edges of the status quo..." This territory
of complexity is 'a space of opportunity,' a place
to make a marriage of unlike partners or disparate
Today, researchers are trying to put polymers together
with silicon, a marriage of opposites because plastics
are chaotic chains while silicon is composed of orderly
crystals. The result can give us electronic devices
with marvelous flexibility that are also much less
expensive. The awareness of 'complexity' makes us
nimble and opportunistic seekers not only in our science
and engineering knowledge but in our industrial institutions.
If we operate with this awareness, we will be able
to identify and capitalize on those fringe territories
which have so much potential.
Holism is the "flip side" of the complexity coin.
Holism and complexity have a symbiotic relationship.
Complexity teaches us to look at places of dissonance
or disorder in a field as windows of possibility.
Holism teaches us that combinations of things have
a power and capability greater than the sum of their
Holism is far from a new idea. We have seen it work
in social structures since the beginning of civilization.
Something new happens in this integration process.
A singular or separate dynamic emerges from the interaction.
Although holism, the process of integration, perhaps
far older than reductionism as a human construct,
is an ancient dynamic, what is new is that it can
be applied to the vast accumulated knowledge of science
and engineering and the new knowledge that is burgeoning
as we speak. A striking example is evident in our
holistic approach to issues of our environment. The
next slide (slide
12) illustrates our investment in what we
call biocomplexity in the environment.
When we train students and workers to think about complexity
and holism as two sides of a coin, we develop a pattern
or attitude to search for the disordered fringes of
a field and to pick out fragments of possibility.
With these pieces of potential, different 'wholes'
can be created in new integration. The possibilities
are endless when you think about the flexible building
power that nanotechnology will provide, the enormous
insight from research in cognition, and the ratcheting
up of speed that terascale computing offers.
Now if you take each of these five capabilities and
you ask, what is the 'constant' or fundamental ingredient,
it's the simple formula of talented people and the
power of their new ideas. Those like David Sarnoff
led the pack, created whole new universes of technology.
They are never confined by what they know, never restricted
by existing rules, and never afraid to propose what
no one else had seen or imagined. They swing with
no net but never lose sight of the ground. They created
everything from Velcro to America's democracy. Any
corporation or industry can do the same.
In closing, and in nostalgia, I want to share with
you some words by Sarnoff that were published in Popular
Mechanics in 1939. He said, "It is possible that
television drama of high caliber and produced by first
rate artists will materially raise the level of dramatic
taste of the nation." Well, though we revere him,
the General was only human and not always right.