I’m going to prompt everyone up front. This article was inspired by the Mega Millions Lottery that was drawn on Friday. No, I will not do the stereotypical thing and pretend I won (yay, April 1st posting date). And no, I will not be talking about the horrendous odds of the lottery (Gizmodo had a fine article about how you’re much more likely to date a supermodel). Though I usually rail against playing the lottery, I did capitulate this time. And for my $5 (inevitable) loss, I did get a good thought exercise out of it all:
I began thinking of situations when you have 3 components: willing engineering/scientific minds, free time and gobs of money.
We’ve actually seen this thanks to the dot-com bubble and the people that managed to cash out. And even beyond the dot-com bubble, we’ve seen millionaires and billionaires spring up overnight. And when they leave that original venture–sometimes by choice, sometimes not–we sometimes see them taking their money and doing very awesome things with it. In fact, things that push that money right back into science and engineering work.
- Elon Musk — He’s one of my favorites. Not because of how he started and got his money (Zip2 and PayPal), but instead what he took that money and started afterwards. His three ventures are currently SpaceX (known for the “privatization of space” and slated to be the contractor taking supplies to the ISS), Tesla Motors (the slickest looking electric cars available today and pushing the limits of EV tech), and Solar City (a company that handles financing to put solar cells on any roof with minimal investment by the homeowner). A great example of pouring capital back into engineering for the good of human kind.
- Bill Gates — A household name, thanks to his success at Microsoft. In my opinion, I think his foundation work is set to overshadow any accomplishments of his past life. In conjunction with gifts from his friend and confidant, Warren Buffet, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest transparently operated private foundation in the world. They focus on many different humanitarian issues at the core of their funding efforts (including the eradication of malaria); this alone has provided funding for many different biological research labs. However, they also are funding other scientific pursuits, such as alternative energy methods beyond what is available today. Bill gave an interesting TED talk on “innovating to zero”, shown here:
- Nathan Myhrvold — Though many dislike Nathan for his involvement with Intellectual Ventures (a company that is funded by holding and defending patents), he too is an alumni of Microsoft and benefited from their meteoric rise. Aside from the IV side of things, he has used his own money to do some interesting scientific work that would not have likely been undertaken by public and possibly even private funding. He spent many months and many more dollars researching the science behind…cooking. Finding what makes the most delicious dishes is a common desire of chefs the world round; he spent his money chasing why those tastes emerge and interact with our taste buds. Not to worry, you can purchase this scientific tome devoted to taste for the bargain price of $450 for the 6 book set. On the more “useful to humanity” side of things, Nathan is involved with and funding the nuclear company mentioned in Bill Gates’ talk above.
- Jeff Bezos — Slightly more interesting because Jeff is still in charge of one of the largest retailers on the planet, but he’s also found time for one of his other hobbies: finding the Apollo 11 engines and retrieving them from the bottom ocean. Another space junky, he also started a different private space enterprise in 2000 called Blue Origin, which is working on bringing down the cost of commercial space flight. As an aside, I find it interesting that a common thread among these well-heeled baby boomers is space (yet another Microsoft Alum, Paul Allen, is also a space nut). It’s likely a result of the US space program having such an effect on the youth of the 60s and 70s…and makes me wonder what the rich entrepreneurs of the future will want to invest in when they make their billions…
Interestingly, we’re now seeing people that have made their fortunes elsewhere also move into scientific ventures, either as part of their inner scientist or because it has some tangential benefit to their business. I sometimes think this is slightly more impressive because jumping into a scientific or engineering endeavor without having done so in the past would be more of an undertaking because of learning to deal with other scientists and engineers (hey, we’re not perfect, right?).
- James Cameron — This director has been diving for many years now, but is back in the news for going down solo into the Mariana Trench’s Challenger Deep. Becoming only the 3rd person to ever visit that depth could be considered more of an adventurer’s task than a scientific one. However, he was more focused on filming and bringing the footage back to the surface than the thrill of being down there.
- Alan Alda — Though Alan isn’t fully funding this effort, there is now a school at SUNY Stonybrook named after him dedicating to teaching scientists and engineers how to better communicate, a notable venture. On Science Friday a couple weeks ago, he spoke about coming back to science (now that his success in acting has allowed him to) because of his lifelong curiosity. This was also the impetus behind the ongoing Flame Challenge, a contest dedicated to having scientists and engineers explain how a flame works to 11 year olds; a contest in which the winners will be chosen…by 11 year olds!
As we seen more and more divestment from public research, it seems that this is a (sadly) legitamate effort while politicians get their act together. Historically, we have seen similar situations, though it was not encouraged by political gridlock so much as lack of infrastructure. In the 16th century, we saw the Medici family fund engineering geniuses such as Leonardo Da Vinci. In the early 20th century we saw patrons such as Andrew Carnegie sponsoring expeditions and museum endowments. Hopefully, we won’t become dependent on these kinds of gifts again, but they surely will always be part of the landscape.
So what about you, dear reader? If you were to find yourself sitting on a pile of cash tomorrow, would it be used to fund research and endeavors? Or would it simply be for creature comforts and luxuries? Perhaps this is indicative of whether engineering is “just a job” for you and funding other parts of your life? And of course, the question in these kinds of hypothetical situations also must be asked: how much would it take for you to begin investing in large efforts such as the ones explained above? Please let us know below, in the comments.
Thanks to PirateyJoe for the lotto ticket picture. It seems he didn’t win either.