Foucault’s pendulum has fallen. On April 6, the steel cable snapped and sent it crashing onto the polished floor of the Musée des Artes et Metiers in Paris. The 28 kilogram brass weight ended its 159-year career—the dented bob is, a museum spokesperson affirmed, beyond repair—doing what it was meant to do: obeying the law of gravity. I have to admit I shed a tear (or at least the idea of a tear) for the fallen bit of scientific history, not because I’d visited the pendulum myself, or even read the 1988 Umberto Eco novel which takes its title and climax from the now-not-swinging orb. I have my own tangled history with pendulums—one stretching back, depending how you count it, decades, even centuries. It’s quite a bit of weight to bear, but a tale worth telling.
Black silicon was discovered because [Eric] Mazur started thinking outside the boundaries of the research he was doing in the late 1990s. His research group had been financed by the Army Research Organization to explore catalytic reactions on metallic surfaces.
“I got tired of metals and was worrying that my Army funding would dry up,” he said. “I wrote the new direction into a research proposal without thinking much about it — I just wrote it in; I don’t know why.” And even though there wasn’t an immediate practical application, he received the financing.
It was several years before he directed a graduate student to pursue his idea, which involved shining an exceptionally powerful laser light — briefly matching the energy produced by the sun falling on the surface of the entire earth — on a silicon wafer. On a hunch, the researcher also applied sulfur hexafluoride, a gas used by the semiconductor industry to make etchings for circuits.
The silicon wafer looked black to the naked eye. But when Dr. Mazur and his researchers examined the material with an electron microscope, they discovered that the surface was covered with a forest of ultra-tiny spikes.
At first, the researchers had no idea what they had stumbled onto, and that is typical of the way many scientific discoveries emerge. Cellophane, Teflon, Scotchgard and aspartame are among the many inventions that have emerged through some form of fortunate accident or intuition.
“In science, the most exciting expression isn’t ‘Eureka!’ It’s ‘Huh?’” said Michael Hawley, a computer scientist based in Cambridge, Mass., and a board member and investor in SiOnyx.
Black silicon has since been found to have extreme sensitivity to light. It is now on the verge of commercialization, most likely first in night vision systems.
Creative ideas are not always solo strokes of genius, argues Ed Catmull, the computer-scientist president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review. Frequently, he says, the best ideas emerge when talented people from different disciplines work together.
This week, Nature begins a series of six Essays that illustrate Catmull’s case. Each recalls a conference in which a creative outcome emerged from scientists pooling ideas, expertise and time with others — especially policy-makers, non-governmental organizations and the media. Each is written by someone who was there, usually an organizer or the meeting chair. Because the conferences were chosen for their societal consequences, we’ve called our series ‘Meetings that Changed the World’.
This week, François de Rose relives the drama of the December 1951 conference at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris that led to the creation of CERN, the European particle-physics laboratory based near Geneva (see page 174). De Rose, then France’s representative to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, chaired the meeting. He had got caught up in the process after becoming friends with Robert Oppenheimer, one of CERN’s earliest proponents. De Rose said in a separate interview with Nature that CERN was the result of the capacity of scientists such as Oppenheimer to propose grand ideas, and worry about obstacles later.
Although this approach does not always work, the next few weeks will show that it really has changed the world. In the ensuing half-century, CERN has revolutionized our understanding of the subatomic world; with the switching-on this week of the Large Hadron Collider (see page 156) it promises to scale new heights.
It turns out that this business of the young Einstein’s immersion in questions of train time and clock accuracy was central to his entire development, and that of his theory. I doubt I am particularly unique in long having imagined Einstein’s day job at the Swiss patent office as something akin to Kafka’s, around the same time, in the railway (!) insurance bureaucracy over in Prague: mindless drudge work, something to help pay the bills while the real work of genius transpired late at night and around the margins. It turns out, though, that the central focus of Einstein’s work there at the patent office in Bern around the golden year of 1905-06 (perhaps not surprisingly so, Switzerland after all being famous for being the world’s center for clockmaking) were applications having to do with devices capable of ever more accurate timekeeping. ... [W]hat with his job at the patent office, the young Einstein may have been the world authority on cutting-edge practice and thinking in these regards. He would have been thinking about simultaneity all day long: and at night he just kept on thinking.