Pieces of the Action by Vannevar Bush

Summary

  1. Bush recounts his more than 60 years of experience as a leading scientist and innovator 

Key Takeaways

  1. We need, today, something we can be genuinely proud of. It should help to dissipate the gloom. For we have been losing our pride of accomplishment in these recent days. Pride of the right sort does not go before a fall; pride of accomplishment leads to greater accomplishment
  2. There are two primary ways in which to lose a battle or a campaign, assuming nearly equal antagonists as far as equipment, morale, and sizes of forces are concerned. One is to have confused lines of authority. The other is to have a top commander with poor judgment
  3. A military organization needs to be tight-knit if it is to fight well. And loosening it in time of war, with the idea of making it able to progress more rapidly on weapons, would be fraught with the danger that the loosening might be in the wrong places and lead to a lot of damage. Second, that there should be close collaboration between the military and some external organization, made loose in its structure on purpose. And the relationship should be a cordial one, assured to be so by the supreme command. 
  4. I never made a single technical contribution whatever to the war effort. At times I have been called an “atomic scientist,” it would have been fully as accurate to call me a child psychologist 
  5. In an industry that has become closely standardized, where nearly all competing companies are comfortably making profits, minor improvements can readily be introduced, but major improvements are up against a stone wall
  6. Edison was a very good inventor, a still better promoter, but in some ways a poor experimenter. Some of his experimentation was crude, to say the least. When we talk about the Edisonian method, which means to try everything without any theory to guide you, just hit or miss, we are talking about very poor experimentation. But Edison was such a good promoter that he could advance even with poor experimental data
  7. There are two main ways to go about inventing. One is to see a public need, or desire, and scurry about to find a way of meeting it. The other is to develop new knowledge and see where it leads. The first method was distinctly Edison’s. Today the second is the most commonly used. Of course, the new knowledge must be directed into channels where there may be useful results
  8. How as it possible for a highly intelligent group of men to pursue diligently for months a false theory, without every attacking it? The simple fact was that Joffe was above all criticism. One does not question his savior. 
  9. Patent laws and anti-trust laws, alongside a common language, a uniform market and nearly uniform customs, have helped spur the innovation in this country 
  10. My dad taught me some things about public speaking which have helped me along the way. One point which has saved me many a headache was this: never start a speech unless you have clearly in mind the sentence with which you are going to conclude. Another point involved some interesting psychology, of an informal sort. He told me, “When you are making a speech your mind is in 3 parts. One is paying attention to your actual wording at the moment. Another is roaming ahead to plan what you will say next. A third is following behind, picking up slips you may have made. Suppress that htird part or it will get you into trouble
  11. One of the finest courses I ever took was on non-Euclidean geometry…Was this a foolish thing for a young engineer to study? It was one of the most valuable courses I ever took. Here was a subject where one depended completely on careful logical reasoning. If one followed his intuition for just an instant he was inevitably lost. It was grand teaching. 
  12. There is a vast difference between understanding a problem in terms of equations and diagrams and understanding it in terms of copper and iron. A physicist can work out the stresses and geometry of a harness, but the farm boy understands the horse. I have known men (I have had them work for me) who were rather helpless on the mathematical analysis of circuits but who could go to a complex relay assemblage that was misbehaving and put their finger right on the fault. So I think the fundamentals of almost any subject, the simplest part, the core, can be taught to youngsters who are just beginning to learn and can be taught to them easily. If this is done, the student who really has an interest will carry through to quite an extraordinary extent on his own. I do not think it is worthwhile in trying t do this to take the matter into subtleties which will not really come into the youngster’s experience for many years. For a principle once learned is soon forgotten unless it gets exercised
  13. The task of teaching in the colleges is not merely to provide students with the skills necessary for a professional career and also to prepare them for the bases on which informal collaboration with their fellows is facilitated, but to go beyond these and provide the foundations for associative relationships that may become worthy, not merely trivial, and which confer genuine satisfaction upon those who participate. Thus we need a balance. Alongside the course in the mathematics of electric circuits we need a course in the history of ideas. And we need that balance wherever older minds seek to help younger minds on the way of life. 
  14. I am convinced that the greater men are, greater in the best sense, the more simple are their relations likely to be, the more wholesome, in their homes and with their real friends

What I got out of it

  1. A bit too long for my taste but it had some real gems. Amazing to get a glimpse inside the brain and experience of one of the world’s leading scientists during some of the most pressing and unstable times.