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From the Big Bang to big bucks

Nobel prize winner Arno Penzias sees the end of farming and recalls when video recorders cost $15,000.

Back in the early 1960s, Arno Penzias and a colleague at Bell Labs, Robert Wilson, set out to study radiation emissions in the Milky Way. During their observations, their horn antenna kept picking up an inexplicable, ubiquitous background noise. This turned out to be a remnant of the Big Bang, and the two won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1978.

Roughly 15 years later, Penzias migrated to Silicon Valley. As a venture partner in New Enterprise Associates, he seeks out and advises start-ups, particularly those specializing in alternative energy.

The energetic Penzias spoke with CNET's Michael Kanellos recently about developments in the energy field, the looming environmental crisis facing the world, and why Hannibal could get elephants to cross the Alps.

When and why did you come to Silicon Valley?
Penzias: I left the East Coast in 1995. I spent the next three years as Chief Scientist at Lucent. The idea was that I would learn about venture capital start-up companies. This was the time, if you remember, that there was a lot of buzz around the Valley and it was good for both of us. Then in 1998, when I became 65, I had to retire under an age rule. By 1997 or something like that, I was already getting so many invitations from the people for presenting that...the folks of NEA said, "How about just doing this for our companies?"

What is your role in particular at the firm? Do you concentrate on software or relations with researchers?
Penzias: I help companies in all sorts of ways. For example, probably the most far out one (from his area of expertise) is a next-generation interface for the digital home. Imagine something that replaces your remote, but with one button and a uniform interface for your keyboard, your computer files, your cable, and your music. I worked on the marketing strategy and invented some of the components for it. It's called Hillcrest Communications.

I got involved with this guy because I had worked with him in an earlier company, but it isn't that I have expertise. I have not watched a complete television program in several years. I don't watch television. There's no physics involved in this thing, it's all about marketing, understanding business strategies, intellectual property.

"If you really want to save the planet, you've got to genetically modify our food."

You've made a couple of investments in energy companies, but you've also been a vocal, early critic of many alternative energy ideas.
Penzias: Yes, I have been and I'm still enormously skeptical about most of the solutions for alternatives. You have to do end-to-end accounting and a lot of the people who do this stuff are what I would call high verbal, low math. People say when hydrogen burns it produces only water. Did you know that hydrogen is a greenhouse gas? Nobody thinks about it, right? It's my Pit Bull. He's a sweet dog, and unless he's threatened by you he's not going to bite you.

It's a little bit of a problem, but then the bigger problem is, how do you make the hydrogen? You could for example, build nuclear power plants, which then can electrolyze water, and that's a perfectly sensible way.

What would you use? Seawater? There are some companies proposing that.
Penzias: You have to start with fresh water. If you start with seawater you are in big trouble very fast because of the salt content. There is plenty of water up in the Arctic and the power plants could do it there, but then you have to get the hydrogen from those plants. You might be better off with shipping out electricity. I don't know.

How is the underlying technology?
Penzias: In PEM fuel cells (which stands for proton exchange membrane), the proton, the hydrogen nucleus, goes through the material. You can start with natural gas or coal and steam and turn the carbon in the coal or natural gas into carbon dioxide. If you do the reaction right, there's some hydrogen left over. The problem with that is if there is any carbon monoxide left over, that poisons the membrane and the thing dies. That's one of the reasons PEM fuel cells haven't gotten all that far.

There are other kinds of fuel cells, which actually don't transmit hydrogen through the material. That's what they call Solid Oxide Fuel Cells, the SOFCs. In those cases, you take the natural gas, you add some steam, and you heat it up and then that treatment with steam--very hot steam--releases enough hydrogen, which then is burnt. I'm quite enthusiastic about that one.

Have you made any fuel cell investments?
Penzias: We have made one fuel cell investment, but I don't have a lot of detail I want to share with you. It's not a proton exchange membrane fuel cell.

What do you think about wave or wind energy?
Penzias: Wave energy is hopeless. If you built a dam around the entire country--just forget about cost--and take all the tide in and take it back out again--all that energy and all the tides--around the entire United States, it wouldn't take care of one power plant.

Wind works very well on a large scale now. It took a long time to do that. The problem is the channel is broken. Contractors will never touch another windmill again because the old ones had so many problems.

Penzias: With biodiesel you have to be very careful. There is a looming water shortage in the world anyway, so you have to be very careful. There is not a lot of green stuff that we really should be throwing away. The real savings of energy are things like using nuclear power.

If you really want to save the planet, you have got not only to embrace nuclear. One of the things you've really got to do is...genetically modify our food--everything we grow, because we cannot afford the farm anymore. Plowing a field, while it looks wonderful, just look at Iraq. (A few thousand years ago, Iraq and other dry Middle Eastern countries were part of the golden crescent where agriculture evolved.)

The public could be tough to convince.
Penzias: Organic agriculture doesn't work in the long term. You are mining top soil. Understand that we are not only using up our fossil fuels, we are using up our top soil, so therefore you have got to stop, you have got to stop plowing. The only way to do that is have food that grows without weeding, without breaking the soil. You have to just push these things in the ground and then you eat them. That's where we ultimately have to get to in another generation because, otherwise, there wouldn't be farmland left.

Do you think global warming is a problem?
Penzias: I don't know if global warming is real or not. I think the jury could still be out, but we dare not take the risk. Even if the odds are 90 percent, you can't take the risk.

It was like Ronald Reagan and the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). I talked to Andrei Sakharov (father of Russia's hydrogen bomb projects) once when he came to the United States. I said it was immoral for him to risk the planet because the Russians would change the rules of the game and start a war. He said the Russians wouldn't, that they'd quit. There was a 5 percent chance they wouldn't quit. By keeping SDI, he said we were betting on something which had a 5 percent chance of working. So don't worry about whether it (global warming) is right or not. We can't afford to bet.

What about solar?
Penzias: We have the two solar companies: Konarka and HelioVolt.

Konarka is saying that what we really have to do is get the cost (of solar cells) way down using reel-to-reel technology. You make these photoactive materials the way that Kodak makes color film. In fact, much of its manufacturing expertise comes from ex-Polaroid people.

Say you have a big box store in some shopping center that has got a lot of surface area on the roof, which is nothing but tar. Instead of replacing the next time with tar, you could just put this nice plastic sheet on top of it that makes it waterproof--and, at the same time, you pay your electricity bill that way.

Is the technology evolved well enough where it commercially might be viable in a few years? Some of the studies show that thin-film solar cells only convert about 2 to 3 percent of sunlight into electricity.
Penzias: I think in a few years. The efficiency is now lower than silicon, but there is no fundamental reason why it can't be a lot higher. I mean, we can go outside and look at an oak tree. An oak tree is doing many times better than silicon. Can you get all the way to photosynthesis? I doubt it, but somewhere in between.

"Elephants just don't care about temperature."

You know you often look at things which no one could believe. I remember when I first saw a picture of an Ampex video recorder. It was 18 inches wide, 14 inches high, weighed several hundred pounds and needed to be bolted into one of these rack panels which people don't even remember anymore. This thing was $15,000.

I went to work that day and I said, "I have seen this thing and, you know what, I believe, after color television, the next consumer appliance is going to be these video tape recorders."

What was the reaction?
Penzias: My coworkers said, "You are crazy. It's just too much money." I said no, I think this thing could come down to $2,000 or $3,000 and they said "Bullshit. They'll never get down to $2,000 or $3,000." Right. Now we are getting them for $30 today.

These were brilliant engineers, going through the prime of their professional lives. They never thought we could get it for $3,000. I was thinking that I was crazy to say $3,000, and $300 isn't even right.

How about the first PC? When you first saw those, did you have the same sort of prediction?
Penzias: No. Somebody put a PC in my office. It came in four cartons. It had a DOS operating manual, which was about 3 inches thick, and a UNIX operating manual that was about 8 inches thick. I was given about a foot of books to read for this thing. So I said, "I'm going to donate this to somebody else." I just gave it away.

What do you think of nanotechnology? A lot of people see it as a way to keep Moore's Law chugging along.
Penzias: Yes and no. It's not an extension of Moore's Law. It's much more like Engel's law. He made a statement I think that said "qualitative differences come from quantitative differences." If you drop a nickel on the floor or you drop the nickel on your way out, that's a quantitative difference in your life. If you drop enough nickels that you go from rich to poor, it's a qualitative difference.

The world changes if you make something very big or very small. For example, Hannibal crossed the Alps to attack Rome from the North, right? Why did the elephants cross the Alps? You can't make an elephant do anything it doesn't want to. It's too big.

No choice?
Penzias: What do you mean by no choice? Who is constraining them?

They want to get where it's warmer?
Penzias: No, when we go up, it's cold, it was warm back there in the valley. At some point they're going to stop, they're going to turn around if they're cold. But they didn't. Why? Because they didn't care. You can't chill an elephant because they (have very little) skin per pound. Elephants just don't care about temperature. They don't need overcoats because they are so little skinned.

Now go the other way. When you make something small, all of a sudden it's no longer about bulk properties but about the surface. So the question is then, what is your understanding of the surface? In many cases, just making something small gives you a lot of problems. Things that you normally worry about--like gravity--no longer work. Somebody has to characterize the property and then exploit the ones you want. That's very hard to do, but that's what people are doing.

I wonder if I could touch on your work on the Big Bang. People are always fascinated by the story, particularly because you weren't looking for it.
Penzias: The story, okay, very simply. What I wanted to do with this horn antenna was understand what the radiation from the Milky Way was like. When we measured the intensity, we found much more intensity than could possibly be coming from the Milky Way. Therefore we had radiation which didn't have a local cause. It was a factor of 10 or 20 more than could possibly be accounted for.

We knew it couldn't come from the agglomeration of all the other galaxies either. So we excluded our galaxy, all the other galaxies, and essentially everything else we knew in the universe. At that point, that was when we had the results. We tried to see the radiation in the Milky Way and we found the radiation way beyond the Milky Way. That's the story.

Did people doubt it when you first came out with the theory?
Penzias: Oh yeah. We were skeptical. Somebody would come up with an explanation; we would look and it and say, "Well this can't be." The first explanation (that the radiation was a remnant of the Big Bang)--and there were actually a couple of others--turned out to be the right one.