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Oral-History:Allan Whitenack Snyder

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About Allan Whitenack Snyder

Allan Whitenack Snyder was born and raised in Philadelphia, becoming interested in amateur radio and wave propagation when young. Attending MIT, Snyder began designing antennas and also had a summer job in charge of radio communications on the DEW-Line Icecap Project in Greenland. Continuing at MIT for his masters, Snyder also worked at Sylvania Research Labs, eventually writing his masters thesis on visual photoreceptors in animal eyes. Snyder attended Harvard after MIT, getting another masters there before moving on to get his doctorate at University College, London. His varied career also saw him working at Yale Medical School to work on photoreceptors, anthropological travel in the Pacific, Physiological Labs at Cambridge, his work on What Makes a Champion and a current position at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra. Snyder has contributed greatly to telecommunications with his work on optical waveguide theory and optical fiber telecommunications, and is a recipient of the Marconi Prize.

In this interview, Snyder discusses his career and also his philosophy about careers and the creative life. Talking about the creative attitude of his family growing up, Snyder talks about the importance of risk in career and life, leading up to his thoughts on being an ‘expert.’ He also covers the many directions his interests have taken him, including the brain, light guiding light, and his important 1980 publication about optical waveguide theory. Snyder also discusses the importance of the simple, elegant solution, one which can be accessible to all, an important point with regards to his work. He also talks about the various disciplines he has worked in including engineering, physics, mathematics, biology and anthropology. Topics such as Sylvania Research Labs and the Institute for Advanced Studies are also covered, particularly an emphasis on collaboration with people such as Charles Kao and George Carrier.

This interview is part of the Marconi Foundation, 30th Anniversary Commemoration.

About the Interview

ALLAN WHITENACK SNYDER: An Interview Conducted by Robert Coburn, IEEE History Center, 4 February 2004

Interview #430 for the IEEE History Center, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, IEEE History Center at Stevens Institute of Technology, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken, NJ 07030 USA. History@ieee.org. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.

It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

Allan Whitenack Snyder, Physicist and Marconi Fellow, an oral history conducted in 2004 by Robert Colburn, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

Interview: Allan Whitenack Snyder

Interviewer: Robert Colburn

Date: 4 February 2004 U.S. [5 February 2004 in Australia]

Location: By Telephone [Snyder in Canberra, Australia at the Centre for the Mind, and Colburn in New Jersey, USA]

Early Education and Background

Colburn:

Let's start with your early schooling, early interests and what led you along the path that you took and the creative impulses that perhaps led you to that.

Snyder:

I came from a very interesting family that was tremendously creative and imaginative. I think in many ways the credit for anything worth crediting probably comes from that. My mother was a Broadway dramatic actress and then became a psychodrama therapist. My father was very interesting. My father's father was a lawyer to Rockefeller and both my parents were highly educated. My two brothers, both younger than me, are both international prizewinners. One, Dan Snyder, is a sculptor. He won a Prix de Rome. My youngest brother recently won a Krasner-Pollock International Painting Award in New York City. I came from a family that valued creative contributions above all else – certainly well above any concerns for money. There was a strong theme in the family about doing something that is uniquely "you"; being passionate in life and doing something that is uniquely you without any concern whatsoever about whether one can make a living by doing it. The attitude of the family was that every individual has something unique, and that if one can find that and be passionate about it, one will have a rewarding and fruitful life by definition. I will get on to the education, but this is the background to it.

The other thing that was very powerful in my family was the idea of not being afraid of taking risks. That was an undertone. It was not so much that we were ever pushed, but the people that were respected were entrepreneuring in that sense.

Colburn:

It sounds like there was a certain visual element as well with painting and sculpture.

Snyder:

The house was covered with paintings, but not nearly as much as I have in my life today. My life today is rich with music and paint and art. During childhood I was enriched by being taken to art galleries and seeing my mother perform and things like that. There was certainly much more of that sort of thing than the average family of the time. None of the people I visited had that. It seems to be much more a spirit of the times now. I went to public schools in the United States.

I spent part of my life, as you will hear soon, in England. I went to a primary school – that is the right word [or elementary and middle school] – called Hopkinson in northeastern Philadelphia. Then I went to Central High School. It was a select school and was the oldest school in the United States and was started by Benjamin Franklin. A number of very famous people went to it. Perhaps the person I would most single out is Noam Chomsky. It was a very special high school and predominately Jewish. There was a very interesting culture there. Before I went to school I had a very strong parental tradition about creativity – not science, but creativity in general. In many ways I found school somewhat more of a factory than a creative place. These were powerful memory machines. Anyway, I liked the competitive atmosphere at Central and the fight for intellects [unintelligible word(s)]. I was not a great student there. Before I go on to other things, is there anything else you want to ask me before I got older?

Colburn:

No, but if anything occurs to you don't worry about keeping it in chronological order.

Snyder:

Okay. I was a person who was strongly motivated. My story is almost classically American, but having lived outside of the United States for so long it now seems unusual. I had a paper route at ten years old, and in high school I constantly worked to support myself so my parents would never have to give me anything. That was an interesting kind of bent I had. I was an amateur radio operator. Our house was covered – my room and upstairs – totally drenched all the time with World War II surplus equipment that was being converted for my amateur radio work. It seems narrow in perspective today.

Colburn:

That definitely gave you another avenue to the rest of the world.

Snyder:

Yes. How good of you to say that, because that is exactly right. I think there you see the underpinnings of exactly what really intrigued me in life, which was anthropology and people and traveling. That has been a driving force. And the whole idea of creativity and doing many disparate things was very much a part of my background. This was a strong factor in my later development, but at the time it did not seem very strong. Talking to people around the world intrigued me. I loved it. There is something else on my mind. I had a great interest in wave propagation – extraordinarily interested – such as in how signals could go at different frequencies in ionospheric wave propagation, how they would bend and propagate around the Earth or travel outside the Earth. I guess my interest as an amateur radio operator made me intrigued with wave propagation, although that was not my main focus in life.

MIT and Greenland

I went on to designing antennas and MIT. I worked with one of the great antenna theorists, [Lan J.] Chu who was very famous. I was an undergraduate and studied electrical engineering, but I studied other minor subjects in physics and psychology and others I can't remember. In my first year – or perhaps it was my second year – at university I wanted to get a summer job and was having great trouble getting one. This was in Philadelphia. I saw an advert in the New York Times for radio operators or something like that, so I went to New York and took an interview. They gave me tests to determine whether I could set up radio equipment. The result of this was that at nineteen years old I became in charge of radio communications on the DEW-Line Icecap Project in Northern Greenland. My summer vacation turned into a seven-month job where I was living in quonset huts on the icecap in the middle of the winter in Greenland on a polar icecap. That was my first real adventure and my first way to pay for all my university education and things. How do you like that?

Colburn:

That is definitely not an ordinary summer job.

Snyder:

Yes. That was extraordinary and gave me contacts all over the place because it was a place where the vortex of industry and American military came together. And there I was also operating and in charge of telecommunications and communications between the United States and the polar icecap – everything from building the DEW line stations to scientific projects that went on there to just communicating with people back in the United States. I also had a very rare radio call sign so that sometimes it seemed that everyone in the world wanted to communicate when I was on the air. Funny times.

Colburn:

What was it?

Snyder:

My United States call sign was W3BFN and I cannot remember my Greenland call sign. I could find that out.

Colburn:

Maybe when we send you the transcript version of this interview to edit you can to put that in then. That would be wonderful.

Snyder:

Do you really want this kind of stuff?

Colburn:

Yes, we do.

Snyder:

It's what you want.

Colburn:

Yes, we definitely do.

Snyder:

Okay.

Colburn:

We are interested in all the many things that go into determining the path that someone takes and leads to whatever breakthroughs and discoveries that are made. All of this is important.

Snyder:

There is a tendency to want to glamorize one's past. One of the things in my studying what makes a champion that has become so profoundly important is that prodigies and really exceptional people in youth rarely go on to great things. Most of the studies of people in the Royal Society and people who have been awarded Nobel Prizes show that these people were really quite average. The last thing I would like to do for history is distort my very average past.

Colburn:

I don't think your past is very average.

Snyder:

Perhaps things I did were not very average, but I was not a brilliant student. I was a creative student; a student that always went for the unusual, I was not one of the great kind of machine students that typify academic achievement. This is politically incorrect, but new immigrants, particularly from Asia, often do extremely well academically but do not do well when immersed in certain situations. It is a very interesting story that I have often explored often, why certain cultural groups do better at one thing than another. In Australia by the way, it's wonderful. When I came to Australia there was really a British culture. It was very disappointing at that. Now it is an extraordinarily multicultural society with very rich Asian input. It has totally transformed Australia, especially Sydney and Melbourne, into a wonderful paradise. I think that's interesting.

Colburn:

Yes.

Snyder:

Anyway, back to me. I came back from Greenland about 1960. That probably matured me tremendously because I was a boy with a very significant job working with grown men. I was totally surprised. Here I was looking for what would be the minimum pay, and then I was lodged with a job that was really very significantly paid and tax-free sitting up there, or something like that. I was given some financial independence. I had always wanted to be independent. A strong drive in my life has always been to be independent while being totally responsible for the actions I take. That really does characterize me more than anything else. I was not a bookworm type of person as a child at all, or even now. Aside from all the love that I had in my life – I mean, how personal do you want to get into this? I think it's important that I be rather consistent with [what] other people have done.

Colburn:

That varies from interview to interview. I definitely do not want to impose any structure.

Snyder:

Okay. I guess one of the two most important things to me were creativity – ideas have always driven me – and the other is people. And of course in university I met people who were profoundly important to me, including the women in my life. They enriched my life. Also very important was that I got a job at Sylvania Research Labs, part of GTE in Waltham, Massachusetts on Route 128. I simultaneously went to MIT. Therefore I had a joint relationship between MIT and Sylvania Research Labs at GTE. The fabulous interconnectivity definitely propelled me. The people at Sylvania were all from Harvard and MIT. They were brilliant people. The combination of those two things was deeply enriching. Working on a daily basis with great research people, who actually did things, plus being at MIT, I think that was a definite turning point for me in terms of my professional career. I was fascinated with electromagnetic theory. That captivated my mind in those days and I took all the courses involved in that. In addition, I was fascinated with biology. I don't remember where, why, and how that came up, but it came up in a powerful way. I started studying the photoreceptors in human and insect eyes and did a thesis on visual photoreceptors in animal eyes.

Colburn:

Was that for your master's degree?

Snyder:

A master's degree at MIT.

Colburn:

Was there a particular moment that led you to that?

Snyder:

I remember having always been fascinated by wave propagation, and in the late fifties and around 1960 the whole idea of light propagation and channeling light and optical fibers . Not however optical fibers for communications; that was entirely before such thoughts. Guiding light with structures seemed very interesting to me – especially since I had always been thinking of wave propagation in the ionosphere. Then suddenly I got interested in guiding light. One of the most interesting structures for guiding light was visual photoreceptors in animals. They seem to be like an optical fiber. By the way, have you a copy of the talk that I gave in receiving the Marconi Prize?

Colburn:

Yes, I have it right here.

Snyder:

And do you have my acceptance speech where I showed pictures of me in Greenland?

Colburn:

Yes.

Snyder:

They are two speeches. One covers all the things. That talk is probably better than what I am saying now in terms of really saying the things with a little bit more care. However I am still trying to make the same point.

Colburn:

Yes.

Snyder:

The fact is, everything I have done in my life, however diverse, seems to always come together magically in another project. I looked at insect eyes and that somehow ended up being optical fibers; I looked at physics and that somehow ended up being the brain; I looked at information theory and that somehow this last year ended up having to do with a new measure for creativity. It's bizarre. I think that the more mindsets one has and the more things one does, the more likely one is to make the mix that leads to something novel.

Colburn:

Yes. That new combination of ideas.

Snyder:

Yes. None of these things have to be very special. One does not have to be great or super expert at anything, though one does seem to need to have an intuitive comprehension and of course excellent skills in each of these things. Not to stay in any one area too long so that they can be merged is a talent that I don't know how to train anyone in doing. I don't know if it can be trained. It is much more fun. As you probably know, I have written a lot about becoming blinded by expertise. I would say if I had a fault in my life, or if I were to pick the thing I least like about my life, it is probably being too much of an expert. I went through years of being very much an expert in electromagnetic theory. I don't regret it because of where it led. I was an expert. I was a real expert and probably a savant of optical waveguide theory.

Colburn:

I also want to talk about some of that and the simplification [of optical waveguide theory].

Snyder:

Yes. I got the prize for that.

Colburn:

And how that came about.

Snyder:

Sure. We'll talk about that at great length.

Sylvania, Harvard and London

Okay, so I was at MIT and the Sylvania Research Labs and it was quite a productive interaction. I worked on all kinds of things, but had a particular interest in photoreceptors. I also worked on color vision at Sylvania Research Lab with a great little team. In those days research labs at Sylvania were more like academic research labs. They were amazing. When asked what he missed about Bell Labs when he was MIT, Claude Shannon is alleged to have given the famous answer, "I miss the academic atmosphere." I was very lucky, because Sylvania Research Labs had a profoundly good academic atmosphere. They were great. It was loaded with the best – the quintessential combination of MIT and Harvard, with mathematical physicists and all sorts of people. That was always in the back of my biological background too. I was taking all the wave propagation, plasma, and biophysics courses, all kinds of courses at MIT. Then I wanted something more theoretical. I did extremely well at MIT.

Then I went to Harvard, because I wanted less engineering and more a fundamental approach to subjects in which I was interested. That was probably my main reason for going to Harvard. At Harvard I got brilliant applied mathematical training, and I think this was the next turning point in my professional life. I took courses with the famous George Carrier, especially asymptote analysis and perturbation theory – all the techniques for extracting the mathematical essence from an equation without solving it exactly. It was really beautiful. That completely gave me the armament or the philosophy – and especially the ingenuity – for trying to always extract the mathematical or physical essence – the essence – from any problem without trying to solve it completely or exactly. That was very important in my life. I would say that probably is the single most important thing for analysis. I took all kinds of courses in many subjects, both formally and informally. I sat in on Harvard Business School and Harvard Law courses. As I was always interested in anthropology, I used to sit in on those courses as well as physics and mathematics courses. I was especially interested in biology. I sat in on George Wall’s classes all the time. He eventually won a Nobel Prize. I enjoyed that. All this time I was working at Sylvania. Then I went to London. I suddenly realized I wanted to expand my horizons and look from afar. Since I wanted to go to London, I decided not to finish my Ph.D. at Harvard and just did a master's degree there. I had a choice of going to Cambridge or University College London. I went to University College London because I wanted to live in London. I love London. I loved University College London. My first memorable experience in London was with my office mate. I asked him what he was courses he was taking. He answered, and then I said, "Have you had course 109?" or whatever it was. He laughed at me. I suddenly realized I was a typical American who believed he had to have certain courses to accomplish anything and who didn't know how to go to the library and just prepare oneself to do anything one wants in life. That was another turning point; realizing that one does not need courses.

Colburn:

Approximately what year was this?

Snyder:

About 1967. Then I suddenly realized I had wanted to be a student at Harvard, wanted to be a student at MIT, and my dream was to be a student in every place – the Sorbonne and so on, to have an elite, wonderful background. Then I suddenly realized, "Hey, wait a minute. It's not about obfuscating the world; it's about having this simple intuitive approach to the world." There is another day I remember well. At University College London I was one of the few people in the world working on optical fiber telecommunications. However it was not yet optical fiber telecommunications; it was visual photoreceptor light traveling down optical waveguides. That had yet to be envisaged for the purpose of telecommunications. I had derived something by a very complicated method which I had learned at Harvard and MIT, and then I saw a trivial method to do it. For a second thought I almost thought, "Hey, don't let anyone know about that." Then I suddenly realized, "Hey. The beautiful simple way is the way everything should be done." That really was a hallmark of my life when that focus switched for me. Look. The whole point of life is the most elegant – very elegant – meaning and the simplest way of doing things. Obviously I am copycatting George Carrier's Harvard experience, but I started recognizing that it is the beautiful physical way that counts. I guess that was a hallmark of the rest of my career, finding physical, beautiful, almost intuitive ways of describing things. I am appalled by formal mathematics and formal approaches to problems. I do not enjoy them. In a way they are easier, but they stop short. I wanted to develop techniques that engineers could use to make things really work and with which to really understand and build. I wanted to make things simple and easy for everyone. Accessible is the word I think I should use. Accessible. It was there at University College London and a little bit at Sylvania that I started seeing simple, beautiful ways of describing light propagation along optical fibers – mostly inspired by photoreceptors.

Simplicity, Optical Fibers and Charles Kao

Now for the big breakthrough. My big breakthrough was to recognize that in optical fibers for photoreceptors, the refractive index of the optical fiber was nearly that of the surround. That led to a beautiful, simple way to describe light propagation down optical fibers. If I had just been looking at optical fibers for telecommunications I would probably have never thought of that. It just so happened I was working with photoreceptors, so it was like a gift from another world. It was a gift. In the eye, photoreceptors always have nearly the same refractive index as surround, so that begged for some sort of approximation. Whereas if I had just been looking at optical fibers for telecommunications I would probably have never thought that was in any way a key concept or a key to simplifying. What that did, that enabled. You have no doubt heard of Charles Kao?

Colburn:

Yes, I have corresponded with him.

Snyder:

Charles Kao is on the Marconi Committee and plays a very significant role in Marconi. At that time he was working in standard telecommunications in or near London. I had started consulting for the British Post Office – which is British Telecom – because they were interested in possibly using the work I was doing for telecommunications. At that time this was considered absurd, because transparent inch-thick glass was needed to use optical fiber as a transmitter. One can barely see through an inch of glass. On top of that, one needed to be able to see through a kilometer of it. Therefore it seemed quite abstract. Then I started to work as Charles Kao's consultant for his project when he started working on this. This was the beginning days of optical fibers. Being mooted for telecommunications was considered outrageous.

Colburn:

Right.

Snyder:

He and I and one other person, Dick Dyott, wrote one of the earliest papers – maybe the first – on how to use this simple approximation that I had derived as a building block for explaining how optical fibers could be designed. I actually teamed up with one of the other Marconi Fellows, Charles Kao, for a brief time in late '68, '69, something like that. How can anyone be that old?

Colburn:

That's a blink of an eye.

Snyder:

Yes, it is a blink of an eye. Charles Kao, Dyott and I always used to talk about whether it would ever be possible to have optical fiber telecommunications. Of course Charles Kao is the person who first prophesied that we would be able to do this. He was the visionary in thinking that it could be done. I think there might have been other people around at the time, but most people give him the credit for being the visionary that thought that could be possible. I was very fortunate to be able to have what I was doing embedded into what he was doing. That is how I got into optical fiber telecommunications. It came through my theses both at MIT and University College London on visual photoreceptor optics, and simultaneously -- both in the United States and in England -- I worked for the telecommunication industry at Standard Telecommunications and at the British Telecommunications, whatever it is called. I had a kind of dual life all the time.

Colburn:

All these things were coming together.

Snyder:

Yes. It was really extraordinary how they all came together. In 1969 I wrote the foundation of work on how light travels down optical fibers. That was at the threshold of the birth of telecommunications. This work I did basically simplified the description of light and allowed engineers to be able to look at these problems simply.

Yale Medical School, Anthropology and Australia

Then, while in London, I planned my next move. I wanted to go to Yale Medical School to work on visual photoreceptors, to work on eyes. This continued my research at MIT. I got a National Science Foundation Fellowship, and that is exactly what I did. I went to the Yale Medical School, Department of Ophthalmology and also the physics school there for applied physics. That was perfect, wonderful, and I really enjoyed that. That was the beginning of where I am now. It got me interested in not only the eye – which is an extension of the brain – but also the brain itself. I started doing all kinds of work on different types of eyes, such as eagles' eyes and insects' eyes. I also did a lot of work on psychophysics and how the brain works, the psychology and the interaction between the brain and the physical world. Now my anthropology bug is really getting at me. I want to go to remote places in the world that no white people have ever been, so to speak. I took off from Yale and went on an extended trip starting from Southern Mexico and going across the Pacific to remote islands in the Solomons, down to New Guinea and then eventually to Australia – where I was given a position at the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Australian National University. This is the super elite research center in Australia, covered with Oxford and Cambridge people. It is a Mecca for research, and the trip across the Pacific was everything I wanted it to be. I loved it there, doing research in Canberra, Australia, and I stayed quite some time. I worked in two departments in Canberra at the Australian National University. One was the Mathematics Centre in which I started the Optical Science Centre; the other was the Research School of Biological Sciences where I worked with the Department of Neurobiology. Through those years I probably published many more papers in biology than I did in anything else.

Brain, Light and Non-Conscious Skills

My interests changed around 1980 and went in two directions. One was much, much more brain, and the other was the new idea that maybe light can guide and direct itself. Around 1990 in many ways I feel my best work was working with this light guiding and directing light itself. My work culminated in a series of papers that appeared in Physical Review Letters and Science on light guiding light. It was the idea that you could guide and direct light itself ultimately for the benefit of mankind, because ultra-small and extremely fast devices could be made. That was a passion of my life for a decade, especially the decade from about 1989 to 1997. In parallel with that, a couple of things happened. I had been a Guggenheim Fellow at Yale Medical School in 1978 and worked more on ideas of the brain. Then, in 1986, I was at the Physiological Labs, Cambridge University, as a Royal Society Guest Research Fellow. That's when I got the insight that we don't really see what is out there; what we see is what we know. That is a rather profound thing. We have no idea for the basis of our judgments; they just come to us. That started this whole work that is now a BBC documentary. Did you see the New York Times article about my work?

Colburn:

Yes, I did.

Snyder:

Okay. The New York Times article, London Times. Barbara Walters is about to do a show on it. It is about accessing non-conscious skills that exist in us all. That has been the driving pattern of my work. I have a very well known article on that in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. I used magnetic brain stimulation to do this, and this is our work right now. I feel I've left something big out. I have been working on this accessibility story, being able to access the latent skills in us all. I should really send you something on that.

Colburn:

I would be delighted.

Snyder:

The theme is that art, music and mathematics are often presumed to be the supreme expressions of the creative mind, and they supposedly require superior intelligence and years of practice. But do they really? Brain-damaged autistic kids spontaneously draw without any training, or they do calendar calculations and prime number tricks. All sorts of things. I recognized that if brain damage did that, it must be possible to simulate that brain damage in an artificial and temporary way in normal people. I have been proving that. That is what the The New York Times article is about.

Living Creatively

And then of course What Makes a Champion.

Colburn:

Yes.

Snyder:

Nelson Mandela and fifty other really extraordinary people who work-shopped what makes a champion and I wrote the Penguin book What Makes a Champion. And I work on What Makes a Corporate Champion and act today as mentor and creativity coach for CEOs in the corporate world. I write and think a lot about how we can be more creative. Here is the way I look at life. I could sum it up now. You know, you could sit if you're lucky. Not fame.

Colburn:

Rest on your laurels?

Snyder:

Yes, or rest on your reputation. That's what I was thinking. I could have stuck in one field after I wrote that 1980 book on optical waveguide theory. Or one can constantly plunge oneself into the pure, complete world of the unknown and try to do something completely different. That is what I have done in my life. I made contributions in the optical fiber field, I knew that subject well, and then I went into a completely different world of nonlinear physics and light guiding light. I started in photoreceptors and went totally into the other world of brain. One thing I regret I did not do is that I never wrote up the anthropological stuff of what now I see was an extraordinarily rich experience of studying the cross-cultural experiences of slowly crossing the Pacific. The magic of bringing these things together. Right now the latest project is the most exciting of all in a sense, because it is [not] only accessing this but devising ways of mathematically describing the creativity potential of an individual. Right now is the richest part of my career – both in the pure science as well as the kind of adventures into the entrepreneurial side of academia, starting up, making ideas come alive and working on What Makes a Champion with many different people. I have been blessed and lucky to have such a wonderful opportunity to be able to do what my mother would [have] loved – the opportunity [to] try to reach for the stars in many different areas. I think that is the joy of living. I used to joke that you don't want to lie in bed with your lover and talk about baseball; you want to talk about rich and wonderful ideas. Ideas are what people ultimately love and they enjoy people who are like that. When I give talks to universities or young people I always try to pass on that message about seeking something unique in oneself, and then go for it. Don't become crippled by expertise. Once one gets really good in one thing it's time to leave – if you want to do different things. This is a very boring and rambling story.

Colburn:

Not at all.

Snyder:

How I bumbled into where I am. I have had many opportunities to leave Australia and I'm still here. It is interesting. One never knows what is going to happen. I am making plans for a What Makes A Champion Event with all the Olympics. I am not going to Athens this year, but we are doing other things. I think the final message for this is many people are crippled in their ability to go forward because they feel they don't have the right background. "Never let me dare go into something for which I am not prepared," you know. I think that's a tragedy of humankind. Ideas come from way out in left field, and one should take risks constantly. I don't think one should constantly confront conventional wisdom; I think that when one has something new one should be willing to confront conventional wisdom. Taking risks is a good element.

Colburn:

Yes, indeed.

Snyder:

I conclude this the way I conclude many things. I'm sure I concluded this way when I was in New York a couple years ago. One of the more creative people – although definitely controversial – is Sigmund Freud. Freud said about his creativity, "I am not a scientist. I am not an experimentalist. I'm not this, I'm not that, I'm not even a thinker. What I am is an adventurer, a conquistador with all that that entails." In other words by his own admission, Sigmund Freud was not a great intellect or great mind in the IQ power category, but he had the boldness and tenacity to confront conventional wisdom and take risks. I was recently asked to comment on what I thought was important. As a joke they asked me to make up Snyder's Law 1 and 2. I said, "All great creative things were probably wrong, but it is what they evoked." It is what they evoke. Although the thing that the great creative thing that was done was probably wrong, it led to many things that much enriched the world. The second thing I said which was kind of a joke but which I think is true is, "Nothing we ever do is original. We are wired up to plagiarize. We unconsciously steal and build on other people's ideas, but it's for the good of mankind." We take something and we add our own little mixture to it. In a sense that is the story of my life: adventurer and plagiarist. I am staunchly of the belief that I don't want to look at anything that anyone ever does. I want to do it my way, but the fact is that unconsciously we are all plagiarizing.

Collaboration

Colburn:

That leads right into one my questions. Marconi often referred to the image that Newton used of standing on the shoulders of giants.

Snyder:

I am glad you asked that. One thing I love about my life –I can single out certain people. I told you about George Carrier at Harvard as a teacher, and Bill Miller at the Yale Medical School, but especially my colleagues in Australia. It's not just the people, but the atmosphere of collaboration. In the United States everyone was hungry to defend their grants.

Colburn:

Right. Yes.

Snyder:

And they keep their colleagues out of their offices at Harvard, MIT and Yale. I have been at good places. Yet at the Institute for Advanced Studies, when I first got there especially, it was a Mecca of cooperation and discussing ideas leisurely. Of course that led to an explosion of creativity. Through the years I am happy to tell you the people I worked closely with who were profoundly important to me. Especially with someone who has my kind of interest and approach, it is critical to have all types in the mix of the creative output.

Colburn:

Yes.

Snyder:

And with overlapping and skills. I am going to have to go very shortly, but we can continue any other time.

Colburn:

That would be delightful. This has been very, very interesting.

Contributions to Communications

Could I just ask two more questions?

Snyder:

Yes.

Colburn:

What are the particular ways in which your breakthroughs have contributed to communications – specific applications? I guess it is obvious with optical fibers.

Snyder:

I think in optical fiber telecommunications my contribution was of simple, beautiful ways to allow engineers to put together and design what ultimately became the worldwide telecommunication system. The foundation for the theoretical description and design of optical fiber systems. The next thing was doing the same thing for the light guiding light or the foundation for light guiding light, laying the foundations for what I thought could be the next revolution in photonics. The all-optical device where one can imagine a transparent cube of material with a myriad of interconnections and components created by light itself – circuits that lie on top of each other and virtual circuitry. That's the next thing. That was a Science paper. Laying the foundations for optical fiber telecommunications has ultimately affected everyone's life since the 1970s – the Worldwide Web, everything. Optical telecommunications have proven to be a profound revolution of this last hundred years. I did a lot of lesser things like explain the design principles of eyes, but the next big thing I think is to show ways to access non-conscious talents and skills in people. That is my work over the last six or seven years. I have published some 300 papers and possibly some of them have changed the world a little bit. I don't necessarily think that my most well-known papers were my biggest contributions. I play with languages a lot. I used to play with Thai. I lived with a Thai girlfriend for some time. The story of my life is definitely mixing with different people and enriching it that way too. All in all, however, having said this, I have not done nearly what I should have done. I have not done enough in any of these directions. I am somewhat of a coward. Here I go around speaking about these things, but I feel in a sense that I do not express it enough myself. I am not just saying that for effect. It is really true. Why am I still in a university? Why am I not doing something crazy in Brazil? I'm serious. I have done all the upheaval things in my personal life, but why am I not being more adventurous in every single domain? I have no excuse for it. I'm just a coward.

Colburn:

It’s probably lack of time as much as anything.

Snyder:

It is a priority list. That is why I am a coward. To be constrained by any of the things we call time is outrageous. I have had the luxury of time and money and I have not fully utilized it in many ways. I could pick up today and go anywhere I want and do something different. Instead I try to do it within the conservative boundaries.

Colburn:

That may be what you were talking about earlier too, about taking responsibility.

Snyder:

Sure, okay. I am taking responsibility. I don't think that changes it. I have to go, but you are warmly invited to continue this in any way you want. I feel it is important. I think my story is important not because of what I have done but because in many ways it typifies some of the things I respect about the people who have done profoundly important things in life. It is not a story that gets told a lot. When I [was] growing [up] in Philadelphia going to Central High School I thought it all had to do with how bright one was and how well one did on examinations. Secretly I had this other life, principally from my parents, about creativity, which had nothing to do with that. It is easy to be misled, or I misled myself into accenting the wrong thing through school. Do you know what I mean?

Colburn:

I think I do.

Snyder:

It would be far better to play with ideas and argue about meanings of things at school. One of my favorite courses at Harvard was history. I have forgotten the professor's name. He is a famous professor. It was the analysis of history instead of memorizing it. It was history as a plausible succession of events from hindsight and the analysis of it. It was really interesting. I loved it. I remember the Civil War became alive – the power struggle, the dynamics of the North and the South, things like that. I found that very intriguing. In fact it almost intrigued me too much. I have got to go.

Colburn:

Certainly. I think you very, very much for your time. This has been interesting. I am very grateful to you for doing this interview.

Snyder:

You will let me know what you want in the future.

Colburn:

Yes indeed.

Snyder:

Okay. And if you do get hold of Arthur Clarke, I am really interested in how that goes.

Colburn:

All right.

Snyder:

Of course I'll know eventually by seeing it.

Colburn:

Yes you will.

Snyder:

More importantly, your personal feelings. Okay. Bye-bye.

Colburn:

Good-bye.