Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries

Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries

by Safi Bahcall
Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries

Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries

by Safi Bahcall


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Why do good teams kill great ideas?

Loonshots reveals a surprising new way of thinking about the mysteries of group behavior that challenges everything we thought we knew about nurturing radical breakthroughs.

Bahcall, a physicist and entrepreneur, shows why teams, companies, or any group with a mission will suddenly change from embracing new ideas to rejecting them, just as flowing water will suddenly change into brittle ice. Mountains of print have been written about culture. Loonshots identifies the small shifts in structure that control this transition, the same way that temperature controls the change from water to ice.

Using examples that range from the spread of fires in forests to the hunt for terrorists online, and stories of thieves and geniuses and kings, Bahcall shows how a new kind of science can help us become the initiators, rather than the victims, of innovative surprise.

Over the past decade, researchers have been applying the tools and techniques of this new science—the science of phase transitions—to understand how birds flock, fish swim, brains work, people vote, diseases erupt, and ecosystems collapse. Loonshots is the first to apply this science to the spread of breakthrough ideas. Bahcall distills these insights into practical lessons creatives, entrepreneurs, and visionaries can use to change our world.

Along the way, readers will learn how chickens saved millions of lives, what James Bond and Lipitor have in common, what the movie Imitation Game got wrong about WWII, and what really killed Pan Am, Polaroid, and the Qing Dynasty.

“If The Da Vinci Code and Freakonomics had a child together, it would be called Loonshots.” —Senator Bob Kerrey

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250185969
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/19/2019
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 502,357
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

SAFI BAHCALL received his BA summa cum laude in physics from Harvard and his PhD from Stanford. After working for three years as a consultant for McKinsey, he co-founded a biotechnology company developing new drugs for cancer. He led its IPO and served as its CEO for 13 years. In 2008, he was named E&Y New England Biotechnology Entrepreneur of the Year. In 2011, he worked with President Obama’s council of science advisors on the future of national research. He currently works with CEOs and leadership teams on strategy and innovation.

Read an Excerpt


How Loonshots Won a War

Life on the edge

Had there been prediction markets in 1939, the odds would have favored Nazi Germany.

In the looming battle between world powers, the Allies lagged far behind Germany in what Winston Churchill described as the "secret war": the race for more powerful technologies. Germany's new submarines, called U-boats, threatened to dominate the Atlantic and strangle supply lines to Europe. The planes of the Luftwaffe, ready to bomb Europe into submission, outclassed those of any other air force. And the discovery of nuclear fission early that year, by two German scientists, put Hitler within reach of a weapon with almost unfathomable power.

Had the technology race been lost, Churchill wrote, "all the bravery and sacrifices of the people would have been in vain."

By the time Vannevar Bush, dean of engineering at MIT, quit his job, moved to Washington, and talked his way into a meeting with the president in the summer of 1940, the US Navy already held the key to winning that race. They'd had it for eighteen years. They just didn't know it.

To find that key and win that race, Bush invented a new system for nurturing radical breakthroughs.

It was the secret recipe for winning the secret war.


In late September 1922, two ham-radio enthusiasts at the US Naval Air Station just outside Washington, DC, set up a shortwave radio transmitter on the edge of the station overlooking the Potomac River. Leo Young, 31, from a small farm town in Ohio, had been building radio sets since high school. His partner, Hoyt Taylor, 42, a former physics professor, was the Navy's senior radio scientist. They'd come together to test whether high-frequency radio could help ships communicate more reliably at sea.

Young rigged the radio's transmitter to operate at 60 megahertz, 20 times higher than the level for which it had been designed. He jacked up the sensitivity of its receiver using a technique he'd discovered in an engineering journal. Equipment suitably tweaked, the two turned on the transmitter, loaded the receiver onto a truck, and drove to Hains Point, a park directly across the Potomac from the naval air station.

They placed the receiver on the stone seawall at the edge of the park and aimed it at the transmitter across the river. The receiver emitted the steady tone of a clear signal. Suddenly, the tone doubled in volume. Then it disappeared completely for a few seconds. Then it came back at double volume for a moment before settling back to the original, steady tone. They looked up and saw that a ship, the Dorchester, had passed between the receiver and the transmitter.

To the two engineers, the doubling in strength was an unmistakable sign of something called radio-wave interference: two synchronized beams adding together. When the hull of the Dorchester reached a "sweet-spot" distance from the line of sight between transmitter and receiver, the beam bouncing off the hull (beam #1 on the left in the figure on the previous page) traveled through a path exactly one-half of a radio wavelength longer than the line-of-sight beam (beam #2). At that point, the two beams precisely synchronized, which explained why the tone from the receiver doubled. As the ship passed through the line of sight, it blocked the signal completely. After the ship cleared the line of the sight, on the right in the figure, the tone came back. When the back of the boat reached the same sweet-spot distance from the line of sight, the reflected and direct beams synchronized precisely again. That explained the second doubling in tone.

Young and Taylor were testing a tool for communication. But they had accidentally discovered a tool for detection.

The two engineers repeated the experiment successfully several more times, and a few days later, on September 27, they sent a letter to their superiors describing a new way to detect enemy ships. A line of US ships carrying receivers and transmitters could immediately detect "the passage of an enemy vessel ... irrespective of fog, darkness or smoke screen."

This was the earliest known proposal for the use of radar in battle. One military historian would later write that the technology changed the face of warfare "more than any single development since the airplane."

The Navy ignored it.

With no support for their proposal and their request for funding rejected, Young and Taylor abandoned the idea. They worked on other radio projects for the Navy — but they didn't forget. Eight years later, in early 1930, Young and another engineer at the lab, Lawrence Hyland, set about testing a new idea for guiding the landing of planes. A transmitter on the ground near a landing strip would beam a radio signal into the sky; the pilot in an approaching plane would direct his plane to follow the signal and land. One hot, muggy afternoon in June, in a field two miles from the upward-pointing transmitter, Hyland began testing the receiver they planned to use. As he adjusted the equipment, his receiver suddenly grew loud and noisy. Then it quieted down. A few moments later, it grew loud again. Then it settled down again. The pattern persisted. He checked and rechecked his equipment and couldn't find a problem. As he prepared to return his broken receiver to the lab, he noticed something odd: the signal got loud whenever a plane flew overhead.

Hyland told Young, who quickly realized the connection with what he had seen years earlier on the Potomac. The beam aimed into the sky bounced off an overhead plane and landed in Hyland's receiver. Reflecting radio waves, as they soon confirmed, could detect not only ships but planes flying as high as eight thousand feet, even when those planes were miles away. They conducted detailed tests and, once again, submitted a proposal for something never seen before in warfare: an early warning system for enemy aircraft.

Nothing happened. A request for $5,000 in funding was rejected because the time to see results "might well exceed two or three years." Another desk chief wrote dismissively that the idea was "a wild dream with practically no chance of real success," listing a handful of reasons it was impractical. It took five years for the military to assign one full-time person to the project.

One career officer who fought a mostly losing battle inside the Navy to accelerate development of radar recalled later, "It really pained me ... to think how much two years of fleet experience with radar before 1941 could have saved us in lives, planes, ships and battles lost during the initial phases of the Pacific war."

A radar early warning system was still being field-tested in Hawaii on the morning of December 7, 1941.

The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, by 353 enemy aircraft, killed 2,403 people.


Like Miller's piranha, described in the introduction, Young and Taylor's discovery was a classic loonshot. The idea that would turn the course of the war passed through a decade-long tunnel of neglect and skepticism.

Into that tunnel strode a man with an uncommon ability to see past common doubts — Vannevar Bush, a tall, thin, upstanding preacher's son, who swore like a sailor and dressed like a tailor. When the First World War began, Bush had just completed a graduate degree in engineering. He volunteered at the submarine research station in New London, Connecticut. His experience there would be similar to that of Young and Taylor eight years later. The Navy buried his most valuable idea: a magnetic device for detecting submerged submarines. From the experience, Bush wrote, he learned "how not to fight a war." In the high- stakes competition between weapons and counterweapons, the weak link was not the supply of new ideas. It was the transfer of those ideas to the field.

Transfer requires trust and respect on both sides. But officers "made it utterly clear that scientists or engineers employed in these laboratories were of a lower caste of society," Bush wrote, referring to New London and similar centers. At the start of that war — the first in which poison gas was used — the secretary of war rejected an offer of help from the American Chemical Society because he "had looked into the matter and found the War Department already had a chemist."

Despite that friction, Bush chose to maintain his ties with the Navy after the war. It forced him to learn a new skill: the ability to embrace others unlike himself, a skill that would later prove immensely valuable. Bush served in the naval reserves for eight years, even as his career as an academic, an engineer, and a businessman grew. He was appointed a professor of engineering at MIT, invented one of the earliest computers (an analog machine), and helped launch a company that grew into the massive electronics manufacturer Raytheon.

By the mid-1930s, Bush had risen to second in command to the president of MIT, and he was still consulting for the Navy. What he saw in the military alarmed him. Despite the growing threat from fascism in Europe and Asia, the armed services in 1936 cut funds for research on new technologies to one-twentieth the cost of one battleship. An Army memo explained that the only force that mattered was "the infantry with rifle and bayonet." Bush warned of a growing technology gap with Germany. But little had changed since his experience in New London. Generals had no interest in the views of "damn professors," their term for civilian scientists.

By 1938, Hitler had annexed Austria and the Sudetenland; Franco and his Nationalists had captured most of Spain; Mussolini was in full control of Italy; and Japan had invaded China and captured Beijing (then called Peking). Bush and a handful of other scientific leaders — including James Conant, a chemist and the president of Harvard University — believed war was coming and the US was dangerously unprepared. Both had witnessed the tendency of generals to fight a war with the weapons and tactics of the preceding war. They understood that the same mistake this time — facing a much greater German threat — could be fatal.

The military, Bush knew, had been gearing up to produce more of the same: more planes, more ships, more guns. Like a large film studio churning out sequel after sequel, the military was operating in what we might call a franchise phase. To invent the radically new technologies necessary to defeat the Germans, however, the military would need to operate in an entirely different phase, one that offered scientists and engineers, as Bush wrote, the "independence and opportunity to explore the bizarre."

In other words, Bush understood intuitively that being good at franchises and being good at loonshots are phases of organization. And the same organization can't be in two phases at the same time, for the same reason water can't be both solid and liquid at the same time — under ordinary conditions.

Ordinary conditions did not apply in 1938. The generals really would need munitions built at an unprecedented rate, troops and supplies distributed across four continents, and millions of soldiers directed in battle. But the military would also need to win Churchill's secret war: the race to create technologies that did not yet exist.

To survive, the country needed both.

One molecule can't transform solid ice into liquid water by yelling at its neighbors to loosen up a little. Which is why Bush didn't try to change military culture. A different kind of pressure is required. So Bush created a new structure. He adopted the principles of life on the edge of a phase transition: the unique conditions under which two phases can coexist.

In April 1944, a glowing Time profile would describe Vannevar Bush as the general of a secret army of scientists that "is regarded almost with awe" in Washington. In October 1945, the Committee on Appropriations of the US House of Representatives would declare that without Bush's organization, "it is safe to say that victory still would await achievement."

But in 1938, Bush's battles were just beginning.


By the mid-1930s, Bush had become widely known for his skill in bridging science, industry, and government. So it came as no surprise when, in 1938, the Carnegie Institution, a Washington-based think tank that supports scientific research, offered Bush their top job. In response, the president of MIT offered to step down and make Bush president of the university if he would stay.

Bush declined. Although a prestigious career and generations of New England family ties rooted him in Boston, Bush understood that the nation's defense would be led from Washington. And no one else had his ability to bridge worlds. He was uniquely qualified, he knew, to mobilize the nation's scientists for war.

"All of [my] recent ancestors were sea captains, and they have a way of running things without any doubt," Bush said years later. "So it may have been partly that, and partly my association with my grandfather, who was a whaling skipper, [which] left me with some inclination to run a show, once I was in it."

Bush quit his job, accepted the Carnegie offer, and moved to Washington.

With the help of the Carnegie trustees, one of whom was President Franklin Roosevelt's uncle, Bush put together a plan. "I knew that you couldn't get anything done in that damn town," he recalled, "unless you organized under the wing of the President."

A place for Bush under that wing seemed unlikely. The president, a lawyer surrounded by social planners, had shown little interest in science or scientists. Bush, a conservative by nature and upbringing, was in turn skeptical of both FDR and his New Deal aides. He'd grown up distrusting "social innovators," whom he thought of "as a bunch of long-haired idealists or do-gooders."

Bush leaned on the president's uncle to get a meeting with Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's closest advisor. Hopkins, a former social worker and a do-gooder of the highest order, was an equally unlikely ally. Years later Bush wrote, "The fact that Harry and I hit it off is among the minor miracles." But hit it off they did — Hopkins had a taste for bold ideas.

On June 12, 1940, at 4:30 p.m., Bush and Hopkins met with Roosevelt in the Oval Office. Their message: the Army and Navy trailed far behind Germany in the technologies that would be critical to winning the coming war. The military on its own was incapable of catching up in time. Bush proposed that FDR authorize a new science and technology group within the federal government, to be led by Bush, reporting directly to the president.

FDR listened, read Bush's proposal — four short paragraphs in the middle of one piece of paper — and signed it "OK — FDR." The meeting lasted all of ten minutes.

Bush's new organization, eventually called the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), would create the opportunity Bush sought for scientists, engineers, and inventors at universities and private labs to explore the bizarre. It would be a national department of loonshots, seeding and sheltering promising but fragile ideas across the country. The group would develop the unproven technologies the military was unwilling to fund. It would be led by a damn professor.

The military and its supporters, as expected, objected. They told Bush his new group "was an end run, a grab by which a small company of scientists and engineers, acting outside established channels, got hold of the authority and money for the program of developing new weapons."

Bush's answer: "That, in fact, is exactly what it was."


Imagine bringing that bathtub to the brink of freezing. A little bit one way or the other and the whole thing freezes or liquefies. But right on the cusp, blocks of ice coexist with pockets of liquid. The coexistence of two phases, on the edge of a phase transition, is called phase separation. The phases break apart — but stay connected.

The connection between the two phases takes the form of a balanced cycling back and forth: Molecules in ice patches melt into adjacent pools of liquid. Molecules of liquid swimming by an ice patch lock onto a surface and freeze. That cycling, in which neither phase overwhelms the other, is called dynamic equilibrium.

As we will see, phase separation and dynamic equilibrium were the key ingredients in Bush's recipe. "The essence of a sound military organization is that it should be tight. But a tight organization does not lend itself to innovations," Bush wrote. "And loosening it in time of war ... would be fraught with danger." But, Bush continued, there "should be close collaboration between the military and [some] organization, made loose in its structure on purpose."

In other words, the two phases must break apart while staying connected.

Bush's attempt to apply the first of these two principles, phase separation — a new agency entirely under his control — did not begin well. One officer explained to Bush "that no damned civilian could possibly understand a military problem." Bush's reaction: "I waded into him ... and said that, unfortunately, there were still some officers in existence who were so dense that they did not realize that the art of war was being revolutionized all about them."


Excerpted from "Loonshots"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Safi Bahcall.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



*Interlude: The Importance of Being Emergent*



Appendix A. Summary: The Bush-Vail Rules
Appendix B. The Innovation Equation
Illustration credits
Source notes

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