A Man Who Sought A Better Tomorrow

By Steve Weissman

Stan Ovshinsky working in his lab in the 1950s. (Photo courtesy of Stanford R. Ovshinsky).

The Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) has appropriately honored Stan Ovshinsky many times in the past. What additional insights can we garner from the beautifully written new biography, The Man Who Saw Tomorrow: The Life and Inventions of Stanford R. Ovshinky? What room still remains for valuable reflection?

I begin, as others might, by adding what I know personally about Stan, based on my own experience, to the image of the man that emerges from telling his full story. I spent quality time with Stan on about six different occasions. They were all in his later years. It was clear from the outset: This was an individual of great skill and exceptional intellect who was willing to harness his talents for no lesser purpose than to carry our civilization safely and joyfully into an indefinite future. While the full biography explains his building blocks, influences, opportunities, and challenges, to know him was to see how those elements produced exceptional results.

Navigating a gauntlet of health problems and financial challenges, Stan pushed to the very end in an effort to produce a source of solar power so inexpensive that it would become ubiquitous. When federal and private funders balked at supporting his efforts to prove his concept and demonstrate production capability, Stan drained his own savings to rent a small research facility, furnish it with equipment, and hire the appropriate experts to run rigorous tests. To anyone who would listen, he would talk about the hydrogen cycle – his vision of using hydrogen-fueled solar radiation to generate electricity with photovoltaics and then use that electricity to separate hydrogen from water. Hydrogen could be used to fuel our lives without producing harmful waste. He was passionate, driven, and serious about the endeavor.

Stan Ovshinsky shows his thin-film solar panel as he speaks at UC Berkeley in 2008. (Photo by Jim Block).

In many ways, Stan was exceptional. But what makes his story so important is how it can help us reflect on the experiences of so many other innovators.

Because of Stan’s story, we know about the pathway that led us to flat screen monitors, nickel metal hydride batteries, energy-efficient switches, solid-state memory storage, and thin-film photovoltaics. His story also makes me wonder about the minds and stories behind many other things – effective adhesives, atomic clocks, voice-recognition software, high-end chocolate, mass-produced fabrics, pizza delivery robots, rubber stamps, electron microscopes, LED streetlights, digital animation, refrigeration, and the silent light switch — to name a few.

These objects – wondrous and large, whimsical and small – improve our lives and contribute to our health and security. Maybe it is easier to think that various people – some of whom may never had envisioned themselves as creators – were minding their own business one cloudy afternoon when suddenly they experienced an epiphany and TA-DA! a great new thing popped out. But of course, that’s not the way it happens.

Unrolling thin-film solar panels on a Los Angeles roof. (Photo courtesy of Energy Conversion Devices, Inc).

Perhaps it is the story of Stan as “parable” that brings up the important basics that drive and equip the many unsung scientists and inventors. Three factors jump to the surface that I believe ring true across the board:

Lesson #1: It usually takes a village. Stan did not become successful by locking himself away from his community. His innate gifts and extraordinary intellect were reinforced by a librarian who allowed the young Stan to take home as many books as he wanted, a barber who encouraged Stan’s visits to his chair to evolve into philosophical debates, and a supportive brother and father. Throughout his career, Stan surrounded himself with promising young engineers and scientists, as well as current and future Nobel laureates. Most striking in Stan’s case was his exceptional partnership with his wife Iris, who was also a prominent scientist. Not all creative output derives from someone who is literally married to their work, but great success often becomes possible only by being open to working with the right collaborators.

Lesson #2: Eyes on the prize. Stan lived for 90 years and never stopped working. No doubt, there were more quiet days than glamorous ones. Great strides require faith in the long-term results and dedication to staying with the project. One thing Stan did was to create a poster illustrating the elements of the hydrogen cycle. This wasn’t just a sign of dedication to certain technological advances. It was evidence of someone who knew why he got up in the morning, put on that three-piece suit, and went out in the world to do battle. He knew how to save our civilization and was dedicated to getting the job done. He stood for something. I have to think that a long-term vision and the passion to realize that vision are critical to success.

Lesson #3: Open mind, open heart. Stan was willing and able to look for combinations of factors that would produce important new ideas. This required courage, boldness, and a willingness to sacrifice in pursuit of the greater good. It also required great intellectual generosity. To Stan, the ideas were more important than the glory. By sharing his thoughts freely and inviting the best minds to join him, he was able to make magic happen. Sometimes it came in the form of his own creations, but other times it was derived from others who could take his ideas to the next level.

CLAS Chair Harley Shaiken, President of Chile Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006), and Stan Ovshinsky at Ovshinsky’s plant in Michigan in 2009.

Recently, the International Panel on Climate Change doubled down on its expression of the urgent need to act boldly and quickly to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. At its essence, that is what Stan Ovshinsky’s work was all about. He made it clear that many of the solutions are readily at hand – if only we would dedicate our efforts to deploying them. Yet the growing urgency suggests that there is still a critical need to find new combinations and invent new solutions. The need to come together – to offer each other our intellectual generosity, our open hearts and minds – could hardly be greater.

Think of Stan and all of the less-honored men and women who have contributed so significantly to the quality of our lives. Think of the scores of men and women throughout the world who are capable of helping us move forward, together. Stan’s myriad ideas and plans are available to help along the way, but the very best solutions may be yet to come. Let’s get to work.

 

STEVE WEISSMAN is a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, as well as the
co-creater and former Director of the Energy Law program at UC Berkeley School of Law,
where he also taught numerous energy law and policy courses. He came to UC Berkeley from
the California Public Utilities Commission where he was an administrative law judge as well as
policy and legal advisor to three different commissioners.

 

 

 

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