Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Thanks for the Tip Mr. Google

Google co-founder Larry Page has some pearls of wisdom for scientists: get off your lazy bums and do something.

Scientists need more entrepreneurial drive and could benefit by doing more to promote solutions to big human problems, Google Inc. co-founder Larry Page told a meeting of academic researchers.

“There are lots of people who specialize in marketing, but as far as I can tell, none of them work for you,” Page told researchers at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science late on Friday.

“Let’s talk about solving some worldwide problems. Let’s get people really motivated,” he said.

Huh?? What???? If scientists aren’t working on major world problems like cancer, AIDS, curing deafness (just for example!) what in the heck do you think we’re doing all day? And I certianly don’t think marketing people have any place in science, which would only serve to further promote “sexy science” that makes a catchy headline and marginalize science thats imporant, basic, but not as attention grabbing. I would love to see the looks on a group of marketing peeps who were told they had to make Drosophila wing development sexy. “Hey look guys, when we knock out this gene, there’s a tiny notch in the wing! WOW!!!”

Page laid some real gems on the table for scientists to tackle, pro bono no less.

Noting how 40,000 people die annually in U.S. auto accidents, Page proposed giving computers control over cars. While many people fear the loss of control, he said, “I am pretty sure if computers guided cars, a lot fewer people would die.”

Build fewer roads in underdeveloped parts of Africa. Instead, he suggested ultra light planes capable of traveling at up to 90 mph (145 kph) and which would consume less gasoline than ground vehicles.

Solar energy installations in the Nevada desert were capable of producing 800 megawatts per square mile (2.5 square km), somewhat less than half the 2,000 megawatts of a nuclear power plant, he said. (A mid sized natural gas-powered plant generates around 400 or 500 megawatts).

A major limitation to wind power is the need for a distribution grid to move power from regions where wind blows to where populations are centered. He said 80 percent of the electrical grid of Europe and North Africa could be served by an ambitious wind distribution grid cross-connecting the two regions. “Are we going to build that grid? I don’t think so. But I think it would be a good idea.”

These are all great ideas. For engineers and public planners. Yes, science plays a heavy role in most any technological advancement, but none of these ideas are basic science, or even research ideas at all.

Page said the reason many scientific undertakings did not succeed was due to a lack of human effort rather than technical hurdles.

Try a lack of funding. How about some Google Science Grants?


  1. #1 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    February 21, 2007

    Huh?? What???? If scientists aren’t working on major world problems like cancer, AIDS, curing deafness (just for example!) what in the heck do you think we’re doing all day?


    SB: Takes less time than you think, especially when you’re single. 🙂

  2. #2 J-Dog
    February 21, 2007

    This guy is an idiot. He wants scientists to be like ID knuckleheads or DaveScot Springer, noted whipping boy for bad science… All talk, no science. It seems to me that he wants Marketing VP’s, not scientists! Hey Mr. Google! I got your Marketing Campaign right here!

  3. #3 Roy
    February 21, 2007

    It seems to me that he wants to be Kennedy and make a bold challange for the scientists of today.

    I challange you scientists to put man in automated cars by the end of the decade!

  4. #4 Roy
    February 21, 2007

    I will say, for the record, that I love the idea of an auto-pilot for cars. I was talking about this (mostly in jest) the other day, actually. How great it would be to have one more lane on the expressway that would be an auto-pilot lane, and would just keep your car driving along a track, keeping it at a safe distance from the car in front of you, until you were close to your exit. Then it would safely merge you back into traffic, and you’d be back in control again.
    Feasable? Obviously not right now. But, I still adore the idea. Of course, given my commute, anything that would let me do something besides drive for that time is appealing.

    So, come on Shelley, get on this! Where is my auto-driving car! Screw this “deafness” thing you’re working on. Get with the car making. And no complaints about it not being your field, or about the radical infrastructure changes that would have to take place. Keep your “practical concerns” to yourself and make my sci-fi fantasy come true!

  5. #5 Liger
    February 21, 2007

    This guy is a tool.

  6. #6 PeterC
    February 21, 2007

    Was he doing a comedy act?
    Computer controlled cars: DARPA are organising a challenge called the DARPA Urban Challenge. Design a car that can handle simulated urban traffic.
    Flying cars: the air traffic control nightmare that would cause is terrifying. What about drunk pilots? Where do you build the airports? What about the 40,000 people killed in the US by cars. Can you image the death rate from pilots? By the way it requires more training and involves greater cost to learn flying than driving. Can you imagine the cost of training a 1,000,000 pilots let alone their instructors?
    Solar power in Nevada and EuroAfrican wind farms and power grids: He obviously doesn’t know about ohms law. The amount of power loss moving power the distances he’s suggesting would make it too costly to consider. Just because you generate 100 gigawatts doesn’t mean there is a 100 gigawatts delivered to the customer. Some of that power is lost to good old resistance. Unless of course we use superconductors. Of course a 200 mile superconductor to carry say 200 megawatts costs, erm, lot$.

  7. #7 Brian
    February 21, 2007

    Roy – they have this great thing called public transportation. You don’t have to pay attention at all. And it exists now!

    Auto-piloted cars are one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard. Yes, let’s make it even easier for Americans to continue to fuck up the world.

  8. #8 Redleg
    February 21, 2007

    O, um, hey, doesn’t it take like . . . money and stuff? And, well, frankly it sounds like he wants scientists to make these things so others can make money off of their inventions. Sounds like he has a bit of a god complex to me.

  9. #9 Kagehi
    February 21, 2007

    1. Already have cars that parallel park themselves, and as someone else said, DARPA.

    2. Flying cars are not unlikely and someone who is way more of and engineer than a scientist is working on one. Likely they would include ubiquitous air traffic controls, lots of computer control and use much the same systems to take the bad driver out of the loop as a self guided car. In fact, since aircraft have had modern flight control computers installed, nearly every major crash not due to pure mechanical failure has been a direct result of some idiot turning **off* the autopilot and ignoring the warnings from the computer, because the pilots thought “they” knew better what was happening than the aircraft. One case, there was a leak in the tank (someone left a valve open or a sensor closed or something) and they a) shut down the autopilot, b) shut down the emergency control computer, c) dumped fuel from the *good* tank into the bad one, against the warnings of the computer, and promptly flew the aircraft into the ground as it pumped all the fuel out of “both” tanks into the air, and all the engines started failing on them.

    3. Newest solar panels are likely to see a jump from 14% efficiency to 28% efficiency. Still not great, but you can already run your house off of 14% efficient systems, if you convert all your lighting to 12V power systems and run everyting you can using the 12V, with converters to 120V *only* in those places where its not possible to adapt the appliance to work on 12V. Even newer light bulbs (halogen, etc.) *waste* probably 20-30% of the power they use running it through what is basically a “converter” to step down from 120V to 12V. Same with your TV, computer, stereo, alarm clock, etc., etc. Why the hell would you need a solar power station in the middle of a desert if you have it 10 feet away from where you are bloody using it, with way less loss?

    Isn’t it fun when people think up things they *want* science to fix, while having no damn idea what is already “being” fixed by it?

  10. #10 Roy
    February 21, 2007

    Roy – they have this great thing called public transportation. You don’t have to pay attention at all. And it exists now!

    Just because it exists in some places does not mean that all of us have access to it. I’d kill for a decent public transportation system around here, but, alas, it doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon.

    Auto-piloted cars are one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard. Yes, let’s make it even easier for Americans to continue to fuck up the world.

    You’ll have to tie that together for me. Treat me like the stupid American I apparently am, and explain how auto-piloted cars would make it easier for me to continue to fuck up the world, because it’s not, apparently, as obvious to me as it is to you.

    The idea of having my car drive me to work was mostly just a “in my fantasy world” kind of amusing day-dream, but there are legitimate benefits that can be had from cars that have the ability to make corrections on their own. Sure, it’s not driving itself, but cars that automatically make traction adjustments are along the same lines. I can see advantages, for example, to a car that can modify speed or give some kind of warning if you haven’t left a safe stopping distance, or if the car in front of you begins to brake suddenly.

    I’m not sure why the advantages would be strictly American, but, whatever.

  11. #11 Mark
    February 21, 2007

    He sounds like an engineer who made a lot of money by marketing. He has no idea what scientists do.

  12. #12 Sean Schmidt
    February 21, 2007

    I hear you all on the fact that scientists shouldn’t become marketing gurus (although it wouldn’t hurt science if scientists were a bit better at talking about what science is and what scientists do) but a few points:

    The general population, for better or worse, looks up to scientists to solve the problems facing our world. They may have little understanding of what scientists do, but they have even less understanding of what an engineer or industrial designer does. So, scientists are the default solution people.

    2nd is that the world would do a lot better with some scientists making their way in to politics. I know this would be a painful step for many, leaving their lab benches for a while and all, but I really do feel we could use some good new perspectives in politics. Like her or not, Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany is making some big waves in the world…and she has a Ph. D. in Physics! Nice!!! One of the reasons the Green Party in Europe was more successful at making it into mainstream politics is that it was started by and continues to count among it’s membership a large number of scientists and designers…the folks that society truly looks up to.

    So yeah, maybe we do need to be a bit more accessible to the general public when they have way-out-there ideas about what scientists do or can do. Maybe we could use a few George Clooney and/or Cindy Crawford Ph.D. poster children to capture the mainstream media’s fickle gaze now and then. I for one would love to see Michio Kaku or Lisa Randall at the Oscars some day.

    And what ever happened to public intellectuals? Albert Einstein never shyed away from commenting on politics or religion. Thank goodness Rachel Carson stood up and spoke out for what she believed in. We have Noam Chomsky and a few others around but the world could certainly do better if more scientists stepped outside their academic/industry circles and spoke out about their efforts and ideas to make the world a better place.

    Yeah, Googleman needs to chill, but scientists can step up a bit too.

  13. #13 darius
    February 22, 2007


    I would guess that Brian was probably referring to the amount of energy that individual cars use as opposed to public transportation, along with the amount of pollution they produce.

    I’m an American, and I agree that we’re fucking up the world. Not that nobody else is helping, but that’s no reason not to look into a solution.

  14. #14 jvarisco
    February 22, 2007

    I think the point is that funding is a direct result of marketing. Cash is concentrated in companies that care less about human problems and more about themselves. But there’s no reason that cannot be harnessed – look at how a few millionaires wanting to go to space is helping to fuel commercial space research. Funding going to “sexy science” is certainly better than not going to science at all, and is at the very least likely to have peripheral benefits. Unfortunately, while some of us value knowledge for its own sake, most people don’t. And they are the ones that need to be convinced to pay for it.

  15. #15 Koray
    February 22, 2007

    Plenty of scientists leave academia and work in the industry. But, I don’t know what percentage. Did he gets his hands on some statistics that we don’t know of? What exactly is he complaining about?

    His quote about marketers is pathetic.

  16. #16 John
    February 22, 2007

    Solar power in Nevada and EuroAfrican wind farms and power grids: He obviously doesn’t know about ohms law. The amount of power loss moving power the distances he’s suggesting would make it too costly to consider.

    These scientists
    seem to think it’s feasible.

  17. #17 Ktesibios
    February 22, 2007

    Something I noticed back when I used to hang around the late, lamented Netslaves forum: there’s a distressing tendency for “IT professionals” to believe that being a good code jockey entitles them to claim instant expertise in any subject they happen to have an opinion about.

    This fellow looks like a prime example of that.

  18. #18 PeterC
    February 22, 2007

    “Solar power in Nevada and EuroAfrican wind farms and power grids: He obviously doesn’t know about ohms law. The amount of power loss moving power the distances he’s suggesting would make it too costly to consider. ”

    “These scientists seem to think it’s feasible.”

    They want to shunt HVDC hundreds of miles! But I thought the reason DC lost to AC during the “War of Currents” was because of the need to build DC generators close to the customer because of the losses in transmission. That and the difficulties of altering the generated voltages to higher or lower currents.

  19. #19 Ktesibios
    February 23, 2007

    No, the reason that AC won out back in the day was largely because no efficient means of stepping voltage up or down existed for DC. This meant that generating plants had to generate and transmit power at end-user voltage- 110/220V. That in turn meant high currents and consequent high IR losses in transmission, the need for thick, expensive conductors and required that generating plants be located close to the users they served.

    Eliminate the transformation problem and DC transmission is more efficient. There are no “charging currents” (the current flowing in the transmission line’s distributed capacitance, save when the line is first energized. While this is “imaginary”, i.e., reactive power, it does increase the IR losses of an AC transmission line. In addition, with DC there’s no need for all the generators on the system to run in synchronism to avoid circulating currents.

    The transformation problem has largely been eliminated by modern solid-state power electronics and long-distance high-capacity HVDC transmission lines are a practical reality. The wikipedia articles on “HVDC” and “Cabora Bassa” are both good overviews of the general concept and a specific long HVDC transmission link.

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