Illusion and delusion at what once was Bell Labs
Fifty years ago Bell Labs was the greatest basic research lab the world had ever seen or perhaps ever would see. Enlightened managers recruited top graduates and enforced an absolute rule: their work had to be very relevant to the phone business, or it had to be very, very good. There was no in between. Bell Labs became a national treasure, capturing 6 Nobel prizes and revolutionizing communications. But as Geoff Brumfiel observes in yesterday's Nature, relevant work continues but basic science is all but gone. The cruelest blow came in 2002 at the hands of young German physicist, Jan Hendrik Schoen. He seemed to be able to make a thin layer of organic dye molecules assemble an electric circuit that behaved like a transistor. It's still not clear how much was illusion and how much was delusion, but it wasn't real.
Nature did not mention Schon in the August 2008 piece. The Schon incident was not the "cruelest blow"; it was a manifestation of the decay already at Bell Labs wherein the managers bought into the illusion and/or delusion of Schon's work. The Beasley report tried to sugarcoat the mass delusion by absolving all co-authors, but this sweetening could not forestall the inevitable. The August 2008 Nature article did mention that there only four physicists at Bell Labs working in any kind of "basic" research.
People tried to save Sarnoff and people tried to save Bell. Fond memories of past glories are not enough. The bosses in charge want to know what you have done for them today.