Lord of the flies

The technology industry owes a lot to Seymour Benzer, but you won’t see him looking for any credit: he’s too busy with his fruit flies.

Just as the hype around the Human Genome Project began a few years ago, Random House published a book by Jonathan Weiner called Time, Love, Memory. It is the story of how Benzer and several other scientists went beyond mere gene mapping and tried to learn how they are linked to emotions and behavior.

While today’s life sciences companies and universities rely on supercomputers for their research, Benzer made some of his most significant discoveries by studying fruit flies as they roamed around test tubes. Most of the flies were attracted to the dim bulb at the end of the tube, for instance, but a few were genetically predisposed to prefer the darkness. Before he brought his full attention to genes, however, Benzer became the godfather of the transistor.

Benzer had just gotten married in the early 1940s when he was called to duty for the Second World War. He was soon involved in a secret wartime project that sought to improve the operation of the silicon crystal rectifiers in radar equipment. The silicon was not proving a reliable substance for conducting electrical current. Benzer discovered a germanium crystal capable of withstanding high voltages, which was further developed after the war to become the transistor as we know it today.

Though he filed some patents on his work, Benzer treated the revolution he helped start like an afterthought. His colleagues rushed to join the new electronics companies, while Benzer went on to pioneer a form of molecular biology that is sometimes called neurogenetics. As he tells Weiner: “Here it was, the semiconductor thing was booming . . . people thought I was nuts.”

Benzer was already considered something of a laboratory lunatic. In fact, Weiner’s book is not only an interesting story of scientific achievement but a vivid depiction of the politics between the worlds of physics, chemistry and biology. As someone who started out in physics, many thought Benzer had strayed from his roots. In the long run, however, his genius has been in demonstrating the way several branches of science must be called upon at the same time to do something important.

There are clear parallels to the attitudes Benzer faced in the IT industry. Specialization tends to follow periods of great innovation and discovery. Everyone became a dot-com or an e-business, for example, until many firms folded or decided their strategy lacked focus. Nortel has been lambasted for trying to be more than a phone equipment maker (though few of those critics were complaining when its stock price soared). Many software and hardware firms, frustrated at the difficulty in serving all market sectors at once, turned en masse to small and medium-sized businesses. In product development, the hoped-for Internet appliance market dwindled from all sorts of quasi-PCs and tablets to handhelds. Once certain opportunities fail to materialize, many businesses fear working outside their core competencies. Instead, the pressure for profitability creates a pack mentality that sends everyone chasing the same group of customers.

Even though he didn’t stick with IT, Benzer is a good role model to CIOs and other senior technology personnel as 2002 gets underway. He walked away from the gold rush. He concentrated on what mattered to him. How many people — or companies — ignore the sure thing in favour of a more challenging revolution? If hard work, passion and ingenuity are what it takes to recover from a tough economy, we need to start acting more like Benzer and less like a bunch of fruit flies scrambling towards the light.

sschick@plesman.com

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