Lehrer - Groupthink - The New Yorker.pdf

There was a particle accelerator the rotc a piano

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There was a particle accelerator, the R.O.T.C., a piano repair facility, and a cell-culture lab. Building 20 became a strange, chaotic domain, full of groups who had been thrown together by chance and who knew little about one another’s work. And yet, by the time it was finally demolished, in 1998, Building 20 had become a legend of innovation, widely regarded as one of the most creative spaces in the world. In the postwar decades, scientists working there pioneered a stunning list of breakthroughs, from advances in high-speed photography to the development of the physics behind microwaves. Building 20 served as an incubator for the Bose Corporation. It gave rise to the first video game and to Chomskyan linguistics. Stewart Brand, in his study “How Buildings Learn,” cites Building 20 as an example of a “Low Road” structure, a type of space that is unusually creative because it is so unwanted and underdesigned. (Another example is the Silicon Valley garage.) As a result, scientists in Building 20 felt free to remake their rooms, customizing the structure to fit their needs. Walls were torn down without permission; equipment was stored in the
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courtyards and bolted to the roof. When Jerrold Zacharias was developing the first atomic clock, working in Building 20, he removed two floors in his lab to make room for a three-story metal cylinder. The space also forced solitary scientists to mix and mingle. Although the rushed wartime architects weren’t thinking about the sweet spot of Q or the importance of physical proximity when they designed the structure, they conjured up a space that maximized both of these features, allowing researchers to take advantage of Building 20’s intellectual diversity. Room numbers, for instance, followed an inscrutable scheme: rooms on the second floor were given numbers beginning with 1, and third- floor room numbers began with 2. Furthermore, the wings that made up the building were named in an unclear sequence: B wing gave onto A wing, followed by E, D, and C wings. Even longtime residents of Building 20 were constantly getting lost, wandering the corridors in search of rooms. Those looking for the Ice Research Lab had to walk past the military recruiting office; students on their way to play with the toy trains (the Tech Model Railroad Club was on the third floor, in Room No. 20E-214) strolled along hallways filled with the latest computing experiments. The building’s horizontal layout also spurred interaction. Brand quotes Henry Zimmerman, an electrical engineer who worked there for years: “In a vertical layout with small floors, there is less research variety on each floor. Chance meetings in an elevator tend to terminate in the lobby, whereas chance meetings in a corridor tended to lead to technical discussions.” The urban theorist Jane Jacobs described such incidental conversations as “knowledge spillovers.” Her favorite example was the rise of the automobile industry in Detroit. In the eighteen-twenties, the city was full of small shipyards built for the flour trade. Over time, the shipyards became centers of expertise in the internal-combustion engine. Nearly a century later, those engines
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  • Fall '13
  • HeatherJoyce
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