Notes from the Director: Of Nobel Prizes and Erector Sets :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Arthur Molella, Director

In accepting his appointment as secretary of energy, Steven Chu became the first Nobel science laureate to serve in a cabinet position. His selection was also a first for a Chinese American scientist, the type of societal breakthrough marked each May by Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Chu, one of the scientists featured in the Lemelson Center's Nobel Prize centenary celebration, received the award for an amazing piece of experimental manipulation that used laser light to cool or slow down the motions of atoms almost to a standstill, at least in atomic terms. His Nobel citation linked this fundamental discovery to a range of applications, from more precise atomic clocks to atomic lasers to nanotechnology.

Although Chu came from an academic family, he has a talent and an inclination for bridging pure and applied research, a talent that will be critical to his success as secretary of energy. In his Nobel acceptance remarks, he pointed out that these twin interests were ingrained since childhood. "Education in my family was not merely emphasized, it was our raison d'etre," recalled Chu, echoing the family experiences of many high-achieving Asian Americans. At the same time, he noted, "by the fourth grade, I graduated to an erector set and spent many happy hours constructing devices of unknown purpose where the main design criterion was to maximize the number of moving parts and overall size. The living room rug was frequently littered with hundreds of metal 'girders' and tiny nuts and bolts surrounding half-finished structures." I find it interesting that the latter quotation could have come from almost any inventor. Yet, in fact, this childhood fascination with mechanical toys and devices turns out to be typical of scientists as well, including those at the Nobel level.

Over the years, the Lemelson Center's programs have presented and documented a number of Asian Americans who, like Chu, bring basic scientific knowledge to the service of technology and humanity. Among those featured have been Indian Americans such as Akhil Madhani, an MIT student who invented a robot for heart surgery; Subhenda Guha, a participant in the Center?s Solar Shingle Challenge; and Ashok Gadgil, who developed his UV Waterworks purifier for use in his native India.

Nowhere are these skills for bridging basic scientific knowledge and technological innovation shown to greater effect than in Silicon Valley, a powerful magnet for first- and second-generation Asian immigrants, especially those of Chinese and Indian origin. In a landmark 1999 study titled “Silicon Valley’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs,” Berkeley professor AnnaLee Saxenian did a quantitative analysis of the contributions of skilled immigrants to California’s economy. Among her most interesting findings was that Chinese and Indian immigrants ran 24 percent of Silicon Valley’s high-tech businesses started between 1980 and 1998, a percentage far above their representation in the population. In 2007, Saxenian coauthored a follow-up report with a group from Duke University on “America’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs,” updating and generalizing the earlier report to the national level. Again, the findings were unmistakable: new immigrants have played a major role in innovation and in generating jobs and wealth.

In 23.5 percent of all engineering and technology companies founded in the United States from 1995 to 2005, at least one key founder was foreign-born. And among the immigrant founders, Indians and Chinese (both mainland- and Taiwan-born) have dominated the start-up firms. Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, born in Taipei, exemplifies this trend. One statistic was especially surprising: Of all companies established by immigrants in that decade, 26 percent have Indian founders. And where does the technology underlying these companies come from? According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, Chinese and Indian immigrants to the United States have also contributed far above their percentage of the population to international patent applications. While debates on the effects of globalization and immigration on the nation's economy continue, these reports make it clear that American competitiveness has benefited immensely from the contributions of Asians and Asian Americans.

From Prototype, June 2009

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