Japan’s Yankee genius, the greatest scientist you've never heard of

Ovshinsky created a hatful of world-changing innovations, many of which threatened the dominance of America’s great new invention: the transistor. US corporate interests rubbished his work and he ended up licensing his technologies to a few small Japanese

On 17 October, there will be a portentous conjunction. This will be the day when the United States reaches its overdraft limit, leaving it with just $30bn to pay its bills (about half the $60bn a day needed). It is also the UN’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty; and it will be the first anniversary of the death of Stanford Ovshinsky, the greatest scientist you’ve never heard of. We could pull everything together neatly by naming it “Ovshinsky Day”.

Ovshinsky created a hatful of world-changing innovations. In 1968, the New York Times declared that his new electronic switch would lead to a future in which we would all have “small, general-purpose desktop computers for use in homes, schools and offices” and “a flat, tubeless television set that can be hung on the wall like a picture”.

It seemed so unlikely that no one in the US wanted to invest. What’s more, Ovshinsky’s discoveries threatened the dominance of America’s great new invention: the transistor. US corporate interests rubbished his work and he ended up licensing his technologies to a few small Japanese companies. You might know their names: Sharp, Canon, Sony, Matsushita . . .

No wonder Ovshinsky was later hailed as “Japan’s American genius”. That US overdraft might not have become quite so bad if the country’s business leaders had operated with more foresight and less fear.

By the end of his life, Ovshinsky had established a new field of science: the study of “amorphous” materials, messy solids that have no regular atomic structure. He published around 300 academic papers on the subject. His inventions gained more than 400 patents. All this from a man who taught himself physics using books borrowed from the public library in his home town of Akron, Ohio.

The technology behind rewritable CDs and DVDs was Ovshinsky’s brainchild, as was the material for “phase-change memory”, now standard in data storage technologies today.He designed the solar panels used in the Japanese calculators that flooded the world market in the 1980s. Similarly ubiquitous is his rechargeable nickel-metal hydride battery.

As one of the first people to spot that burning fossil fuels would lead to global climate change, Ovshinsky geared much of his research towards steering us away from that future. His altruism was unbounded: he threw ideas to anyone who would listen. Nevill Mott, on receiving his Nobel Prize in Physics in 1977, admitted that he got some of his best ideas from Ovshinsky.

In 1960, Ovshinsky set up his firm Energy Conversion Devices (ECD) to use “creative science to solve societal problems”. He saw science ending poverty by ensuring everyone had access to the resources necessary for life.

He led by example. In 2000, an analysis of executive pay by the Institute for Policy Studies found that the average chief executive was drawing 500 times the salary of an average worker at the same company. Ovshinsky was taking just five times the wage of those on ECD’s factory floor.

Ovshinsky didn’t eradicate poverty before he died last October and the UN isn’t going to get there just by naming a day in honour of the idea. Yet that’s no reason to give up. You’ve heard of him now and it’s almost inevitable that you’ll use one of his technologies on 17 October. When you do, give something back. Choose to walk, take public transport or cycle rather than burn fossil fuels. Borrow a book from a library. Give something away – an idea, money, some help. Have a happy Ovshinsky Day.

The flatscreen TV: impossible without Ovshinsky. Image: Getty

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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“A cursed project”: a short history of the Facebook “like” button

Mark Zuckerberg didn't like it, it used to be called the “awesome button”, and FriendFeed got there first. 

The "like" button is perhaps the simplest of the website's features, but it's also come to define it. Companies vie for your thumbs up. Articles online contain little blue portals which send your likes back to Facebook. The action of "liking" something is seen to have such power that in 2010, a class action lawsuit was filed against Facebook claiming teenagers should not be able to "like" ads without parental consent. 

And today, Facebook begins trials of six new emoji reaction buttons which join the like button at the bottom of posts, multiplying its potential meanings by seven: 

All this makes it a little surprising that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent a good portion of the noughties giving the like button a thumbs down. According to Andrew Bosworth, Vice President of Advertising and Pages at Facebook (and known simply as "Boz") it took nearly two years to get the concept of an approval button for posts off the ground.

In a fascinating Quora thread, Boz explains that the idea of a star, plus sign or thumbs up for posts first came up in July 2007, three years after "TheFacebook" launched in 2004. Throughout these initial discussions, the proposed bursts of positivity was referred to as an "awesome button". A few months later someone floated the word "like" as a replacement, but, according to Boz, it received a "lukewarm" reception. 

The team who ran the site's News Feed feature were keen, as it would help rank posts based on popularity. The ad team, meanwhile, thought "likes" could improve clickthrough rates on advertisements. But in November 2007, the engineering team presented the new feature to Mark Zuckerberg, and, according to Boz, the final review "[didn't] go well". The CEO was concerned about overshadowing the Facebook "share" and comment features - perhaps people would just "awesome" something, rather than re-posting the content or writing a message. He also wanted more clarification on whether others would see your feedback or not. After this meeting, Boz writes, "Feature development as originally envisioned basically stops". 

The teams who wanted the button forged ahead with slightly different features. If you were an early user, you might remember that News Feed items and ads collected positive or negative feedback from you, but this wasn't then displayed to other users. This feature was "ineffective", Boz writes, and was eventually shut down. 

So when Jonathan Piles, Jaren Morgenstern and designer Soleio took on the like button again in December 2008, many were skeptical: this was a "cursed project", and would never make it past a sceptical Zuckerberg. Their secret weapon, however was data scientist Itamar Rosenn, who provided data to show that a like button wouldn't reduce the number of comments on a post. - that, in fact, it increased the number of comments, as likes would boost a popular post up through the News Feed. Zuckerberg's fears that a lower-impact feedback style would discourage higher value interactions like reposting or commenting were shown to be unfounded. 

A bigger problem was that FriendFeed, a social aggregator site which shut down in April 2015, launched a "like" feature in October 2007, a fact which yielded some uncomfortable media coverage when Facebook's "like" finally launched. Yet Boz claims that no one at Facebook clocked onto FriendFeed's new feature: "As far as I can tell from my email archives, nobody at FB noticed. =/". 

Finally, on 9 February 2009, "like" launched with a blogpost, "I like this", from project manager Leah Pearlman who was there for the first "awesome button" discussions back in 2007. Her description of the button's purpose is a little curious, because it frames the feature as a kind of review: 

This is similar to how you might rate a restaurant on a reviews site. If you go to the restaurant and have a great time, you may want to rate it 5 stars. But if you had a particularly delicious dish there and want to rave about it, you can write a review detailing what you liked about the restaurant. We think of the new "Like" feature to be the stars, and the comments to be the review.

Yet as we all know, there's no room for negative reviews on Facebook - there is no dislike button, and there likely never will be. Even in the preliminary announcements about the new emoji reactions feature, Zuckerberg has repeatedly made clear that "dislike" is not a Facebook-worthy emotion: "We didn’t want to just build a Dislike button because we don’t want to turn Facebook into a forum where people are voting up or down on people’s posts. That doesn’t seem like the kind of community we want to create."

Thanks to the new buttons, you can be angry, excited, or in love with other people's content, but the one thing you can't do is disapprove of its existence. Championing positivity is all well and good, but Zuckerberg's love of the "like" has more to do with his users' psychology than it does a desire to make the world a happier place. Negative feedback drives users away, and thumbs-down discourages posting. A "dislike" button could slow the never-ending stream of News Feed content down to a trickle - and that, after all, is Facebook's worst nightmare. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.