THE IDEA FACTORY: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation
Jon Gertner
The Penguin Press; March 15; $29.95

Last fall, in an essay titled "Innovation Starvation," sci-fi novelist Neal Stephenson lamented the decline of the American space program. He recalled the awe and wonder he felt growing up, sitting in front of grainy black-and-white images of the Gemini missions. And he explained the great disappointment he felt at witnessing the final Space Shuttle launch. To him, NASA's move away from manned space exploration represented something larger, what he called "our far broader inability as a society to execute on the big stuff." Raised on mid-twentieth century techno-optimism, he grew up with big expectations for the future: space stations and vacations on Mars. Not only had those dreams failed to materialize, he said, but no one seemed to be dreaming them anymore.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson sounded a similar note recently, saying, "after we went to the moon, it all ended. We stopped dreaming." NASA's current budget, he says, amounts to four-tenths of one penny on a tax dollar. Both he and Stephenson describe a country lacking the will to build the future; instead, it seems content to live off the last century's technological accomplishments, with only incremental advances. The giant leaps of innovation now seem too uncertain, too far beyond immediate reach. "The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale," Stephenson writes, "no longer seems like the childish preoccupation of a few nerds with slide rules. It’s the only way for the human race to escape from its current predicaments. Too bad we’ve forgotten how to do it."