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The Lost History of the Transistor

How, 50 years ago, Texas Instruments and Bell Labs pushed electronics into the silicon age

15 min read
Photo of Gordon Teal and William Shockley
Photo: Texas Instruments

imgIn the Beginning: Gordon Teal (far left) directed the development of the silicon transistor at Texas Instruments. William Shockley (second from left) led the team at Bell Telephone Laboratories that developed the very first transistor, which was made of germanium. TI’s silicon device (second from right) with its three long leads became famous, making the Texas upstart the sole supplier of silicon transistors for several years in the 1950s. Morris Tanenbaum (far right) at Bell Labs actually made the first silicon transistor, but he felt “it didn’t look attractive” from a manufacturing point of view.Photo: Texas Instruments (Teal, Shepherd, and Transistor); Morris Tanenbaum

The speaker’s words were at once laconic and electrifying. “Contrary to what my colleagues have told you about the bleak prospects for silicon transistors,” he proclaimed in his matter-of-fact voice, “I happen to have a few of them here in my pocket.”

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The World’s Largest Camera Is Nearly Complete

The future heart of the Vera C. Rubin Observatory will soon make its way to Chile

3 min read
A large black cylinder with a glass lens in front rests on a sturdy white structure in a bright room.

The LSST camera, eventually bound for the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile, sits on its stand in a Bay Area clean room.

Jacqueline Ramseyer Orrell/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

The world’s largest camera sits within a nondescript industrial building in the hills above San Francisco Bay.

If all goes well, this camera will one day fit into the heart of the future Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile. For the last seven years, engineers have been crafting the camera in a clean room at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, Calif. In May 2023, if all goes according to plan, the camera will finally fly to its destination, itself currently under construction in the desert highlands of northern Chile.

Building a camera as complex as this requires a good deal of patience, testing, and careful engineering. The road to that flight has been long, and there’s still some way to go before the end is in sight.

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Lab Revisits the Task of Putting Common Sense in AI

New nonprofit Basis hopes to model human reasoning to inform science and public policy

5 min read
ai hand and human hand touching pointer fingers
iStock

The field of artificial intelligence has embraced deep learning—in which algorithms find patterns in big data sets—after moving on from earlier systems that more explicitly modeled human reasoning. But deep learning has its flaws: AI models often show a lack of common sense, for example. A new nonprofit, Basis, hopes to build software tools that advance the earlier method of modeling human reasoning, and then apply that method toward pressing problems in scientific discovery and public policy.

To date, Basis has received a government grant and a donation of a few million dollars. Advisors include Rui Costa, a neuroscientist who heads the Allen Institute in Seattle, and Anthony Philippakis, the chief data officer of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass. In July, over tacos at the International Conference on Machine Intelligence, I spoke with Zenna Tavares, a Basis cofounder, and Sam Witty, a Basis research scientist, about human intelligence, problems with academia, and trash collection. The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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