Movement of a Butterfly Wing

In an email exchange this morning, I was able to reflect back on the past 30 years of technology change in a very personal way. Let’s see if this can be reconstructed for you as well.

Around 30 years ago, I was finishing a PhD in Astronomy from the University of Virginia. Jobs were scarce in this field at that time and there were questions about my thesis as well. So when I applied for teaching or research jobs, I received no offers at all. With a baby on the way (my son and his wife are having their first child later this month!), I widened the job search.

One thing I did was to take the Air Force officer’s candidacy school exam (OCS) and did pretty well, so I was offered to join the US Air Force and to teach and do research but would also serve. I had some dream of perhaps being a shuttle mission expert as that program was just starting.

But finally people believed in my thesis, but too late for normal astronomy jobs and so a former professor offered to help me have interviews with Bell Labs (ATT). I interviewed in integrated circuit processing, software for IC design, switching technology and fiber optics.

And in the end, I chose to go to work for Bell Labs in Allentown, PA.

They say that sometimes hurricanes get started when a butterfly moves its wings off the coast of Africa and that ultra small disturbance at just the right moment changes everything.

Well it did for me!

At the time I joined Bell Labs here is the state of communications-

  • virtually no optical fiber had been deployed anywhere (today you do not make a call except to your neighbor)
  • the phone company only offered plain old telephone service (POTS) and long distance was expensive; around that time I made a phone call to Europe that cost over $100!
  • fast data communications was 0.0003 Mb/s using a modem over the phone lines – today we have DSL at 1-8 Mb/s and cable modems are even faster.
  • no cell phone network so no SMS, no email on phones, no GPS, no camera phones
  • there was no Internet like we think of it today, a few researchers were playing with it and Bob Metcalfe had just made ethernet work pretty well. But no email, web browsing, Google, video on demand, YouTube

I was able to begin working in a field that would produce one of the largest transformations for us all over the next 30 years

Today we have all of those elements different. That $100 long distance call would be $0.60 or free if we use Skype or iChat and it could be video as well as audio!

And in starting Finisar in 1988, the level of participation I had was even greater. Today most mouse clicks, most email sends, nearly all video conferences and skype phone calls at some point have one or more Finisar optical transceiver modules make light for those actions! Now I am sure the internet would have happened without me, but the point is that my seemingly random decision not to go fly the shuttle and instead to work at Bell Labs on optical fiber communications was a butterfly wing level personal decision that let me ride the hurricane for more than 25 years!

How does one get so fortunate?

I would like to tell you that I felt the butterfly wings and knew what was right to do. But I did not. I was educated, open minded and willing to help. But I did not consciously choose this wonderful (looking backwards) decision.

Posted in Essays, Personal Stories, Spiritual Threads

  1. Eric Lee says:

    Thanks for posting the article, was certainly a great read!

  2. Rosi says:

    i liked this post – personal yet informative. i also happen to like the author.

  3. Bob says:

    You really have to ask yourself how many folks are waiting around for the opportunity to make a similar wonderful decision in their lives. Like it or not we have all made impactful decisions in our lives, but we just didn’t know it at the time. Some decisions occur early in life and make a difference (either positively or negatively). Others occur late in life and never have time to mature. Your essay reminds me of the Robert Frost poem on “the road not taken”. The what ifs of life are too many to count. There are always those who make great decisions at every turn and millions of others who just make decisions or make none at all. Is it luck? Is it fate?

  4. Gami Dadusc Maislin says:

    Hello! I believe the key to you getting so fortunate is in your penultimate sentence, “I was educated, open minded and willing to help”. With your passion and loving-life attitude, I am 100% sure that had you chosen the other path, you would have made equally awesome, if different, contributions to the world.


Leave a Reply