Hip to be Square

Review: The rapidly changing social and political landscape of America in the 1970s is often associated with left-wing counter culture — but many mainstream scientists and engineers responded to the era’s shifting priorities by turning away from military-industrial funding, working in interdisciplinary ways, and focusing on solving societal problems.

CDC 7600 Supercomputer, LLNL, 1970s. Credit: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo.
CDC 7600 Supercomputer, LLNL, 1970s. Credit: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo.

The Squares: US Physical and Engineering Scientists in the Long 1970s, by  Cyrus C. M. Mody, The MIT Press, 407 pp, Open Access

The origins of Silicon Valley are shrouded in myths. Free marketeers cite the Bay Area as an example of the riches that flow when the federal government gets the hell of out of the way. The truth is that the US government and military have worked hand in glove with businesses and scientists, while funding research underpinning everything from the Internet to the iPhone. By contrast, another story maintains that the secret sauce of Silicon Valley was created in 1960s Berkeley, and spread southwards via radical innovators high on New Age spirituality and mushroom tea who turned the last of the region’s orchards and farmlands into the more economically fertile high-tech powerhouse of today. This too, is a little skewed. Despite a smattering of ‘groovy’ scientists who embraced the counterculture movement, many researchers, quite likely the majority, were politically ambivalent or barely shifted their political views at all. Those that did, perhaps noting the persecution of left-leaning scientists during the McCarthy era, often preferred to keep their opinions to themselves rather than join a protest march. Some would later scorn their cooler contemporaries from Olympian perches atop hi-tech firms. ‘We are really the revolutionaries in the world today,’ chip-maker Intel’s co-founder Gordon Moore declared in 1973, ‘not the kids with the long hair and beards who were wrecking the schools a few years ago.’

Paradoxically, academic literature is skewed towards Silicon Valley’s flower power founders rather than the invariably white, middle class, often conservative and decidedly male scientists and engineers who would have nodded knowingly along with Moore. This is the perhaps surprising lacuna that science historian Cyrus Mody admirably addresses with his new bookThe Squares: US Physical and Engineering Scientists in the Long 1970s, which examines how ‘Waspy’ men, often hailing from medium-sized towns in the Midwest, responded to the shifting priorities of the seventies.

The Squares, however, is not a hagiography of Silicon Valley’s unsung innovators. ‘Given their overrepresentation in their profession, square scientists hold the keys to revealing some general features of how science and engineering fields deal with such pressure for reform,’ Mody, a Midwesterner himself, explains. ‘If we want science and engineering to become more representative, inclusive, and socially responsible then we also need histories of those who were included and well represented to begin with, and especially histories of what those people did in eras when their privileges became less secure.’

The seventies were a turning point for American science. With the space race ‘won,’ fears that the Soviets were ahead in science abated and the federal largesse that the research enterprise had enjoyed since the end of the Second World War began to evaporate. Mody shows how his ‘squares,’ acting either opportunistically or from conviction, moved from defence work to more socially responsible research. One case he explores, for example, is that of theoretical physicist Philip Wyatt, who arrived in Santa Barbara in the early 1960s to work for TEMPO, General Electric’s defence think tank. He joined the antiballistic missile group to look at how lasers might be used to track missiles. By 1967, though he had invented a rather different application for lasers — shining them through fluid samples to detect suspended particles. At first, Wyatt successfully sought army funding to develop the technology, his initial idea being to use it to detect pathogens during a biological attack. The following year he launched a start-up company, Science Spectrum, and soon after the massive Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 galvanised support in the US for environmental legislation. Wyatt started talking up his technology’s potential to help fight pollution by studying smog particles in the atmosphere. Later, as funding for biomedical research surged and defence money dwindled, Science Spectrum worked with a local hospital to assay the effectiveness of antibiotics.

Institutions too were in crisis as Cold War defence grants suddenly dried up. Stanford University, credited with playing a key role in the Silicon Valley success story, was so riven by protests that there were worries it had no future. Initially a sleepy backwater pandering to the coddled children of California’s elite, Stanford had transformed itself during the Cold War into a much-envied elite, research-intensive institution by aggressively pursuing federal grants and contract work for the military and the local aerospace and electronics industries. But the 1969 and 1970 activism by students, including anti-Vietnam war demonstrations,  had forced the university to drop all classified research and to sever ties with the hugely successful Stanford Research Institute, founded to perform client-sponsored research and development (the institute would later spin-off dozens of successful ventures including the firm behind Apple’s personal electronic assistant Siri). The institution was left with a gaping hole in its budget and the university’s president, Kenneth Pitzer, was forced out in June 1970 after failing to get a grip on the protests.

Stanford University’s eventual answer to these ructions and its subsequent financial woes was interdisciplinary research. Though initially unpopular with hopelessly square figures like the vice provost, William Miller, or the associate dean of engineering William Rambo, who deplored the ‘blind rush toward so-called “relevant research”’ and feared the ‘traditional disciplines’ would suffer, the idea quickly united both the faculty and antiwar students, who were convinced that socially relevant ‘problem-orientated’ research, like tackling smog, would by its nature be interdisciplinary. The move proved to be lucrative. Today, Stanford is synonymous with free-wheeling, discipline-crossing, and, above all, profitable research.

Another institution that struggled to find itself in the 1970s was Nasa. The agency was suddenly left without a pressing mission after landing humans on the Moon in 1969 and, in danger of becoming a victim of its own success, started looking for ways to keep its large workforce busy until the space shuttle programme was fully underway. With space funding shrinking — the agency’s budget dropped from a peak of 0.7 per cent of GDP in 1967 to 0.2 per cent in 1975 — Nasa turned to applying its know-how to terrestrial problems with mixed results. Freeze-dried astronaut food, for example, was commercially successful after the agency handed over the technology to the private sector — but Nasa’s original intent — to cater to the nutritional needs of the disabled, elderly and poor — was largely forgotten.

Not all squares were successful in reinventing themselves. Jack Kilby, who later won the Nobel Prize in Physics for co-inventing the integrated circuit, tried to commercialise his silicon-based solar energy system but, as Mody shows, his efforts faltered when he failed to interest backers in the Pentagon. Overall, however, Mody maintains that ‘even the most grudging squares were at least as successful in enacting a reformist technoscience as their more enthusiastic countercultural peers.’

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is the easy familiarity with which Mody, a science historian with an engineering sciences degree, describes the technology. Explaining glass-maker Corning’s acquisition of Signetics, a microelectronics company, he says circuits are not made solely from metals and semiconductors but also insulators such as ceramics and glass ‘that impede the flow of electrons in unwanted directions.’ ‘Silicon Valley’s material basis is not just silicon,’ he notes, ‘but also silicon dioxide.’

That modern science is a conservative endeavour should come as no surprise. Progress tends to be incremental and revolutions rare. ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,’ astronomer Carl Sagan said, capturing the spirit of science beautifully. Theories, results, or indeed people who stray too far from the scientific norm attract suspicion and scrutiny. This is why The Squares, a portrait of the contortions of typical scientists and engineers trying to adjust to life after the anti-establishment upheavals that shook America in the 1960s, is both fascinating and necessary.


Ananyo Bhattacharya