Finished reading: Loonshots by Safi Bahcall 📚

This was recommended by someone at work and this time I’m very glad they did. The author carefully details the history of some of the most significant breakthroughs and, as a physicist, isn’t shy with the specifics. It was staggering to me at the start of the book how intertwined the “big” computer tech (and by extension, media; Lucasfilm, Pixar, …) companies are and the history they share. By the end of the book these connections are much clearer. I hadn’t expected quite the history lesson, but the prevalence of persisting English technology over the much older Chinese inventions becomes well-reasoned. Less fun is the contemplation that maybe we don’t currently have an equivalent of Bell Labs fostering such speculative exploration without the need to be profitable in the near future. Even the well-funded but negative revenue companies have the plan to be highly profitable, not a plan to make something better. The B corporations are a good exception, but they’re still not quite “loonshot nurseries”.

One of the key learnings for me, as someone who works in a Silicon-valley-adjacent biotech startup (hence the recommendation), was that the attitude of creating a “disruptive” technology is backwards. Many technologies can be seen as disruptive in hindsight, but they never start out with that attitude. Incremental improvement with the support to try something different certainly leads there, but it’s perhaps too large a leap to try to get there sooner. Having the support to try something different that could be better is the first step towards making something incredible, and it certainly won’t work every time, but not trying will absolutely lead to not making it.

Lastly, I don’t think it really sunk in while I was working there for nearly five years since I wasn’t so read-up on the history, but seeing Genentech mentioned in many of these recent books always makes me do a double-take.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone interested in how big ideas come about and survive, and why others don’t.