Is Bill Gates delivering a new Einstein letter?

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On Aug. 2, 1939, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to “F.D. Roosevelt, President of the United States,” outlining the potential of uranium to create a chain reaction and of Germany’s interest in this raw material.  His letter was fundamentally about a new type of energy, and it began directly:

Some recent work by E.Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. Certain aspects of the situation which has arisen seem to call for watchfulness and, if necessary, quick action on the part of the Administration. I believe therefore that it is my duty to bring to your attention the following facts and recommendations …

Einstein’s letter is clear and short.  In just over 500 words, he outlines the state of nuclear science and its then uncertain potential to build “extremely powerful bombs of a new type.”

The letter closes with a piece of intelligence about what can be called the competitive threat posed by Germany. 

I understand that Germany has actually stopped the sale of uranium from the Czechoslovakian mines which she has taken over. That she should have taken such early action might perhaps be understood on the ground that the son of the German Under-Secretary of State, von Weizsäcker, is attached to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin where some of the American work on uranium is now being repeated.

Yours very truly,

Albert Einstein

Germany’s interest in uranium is what gave Einstein’s letter pressing urgency. And, increasingly, something similar is emerging in the energy debate.

Much of the discussion in the energy debate is on achieving energy independence. That’s still the goal, but it may no longer be its leading driver.  The debate is shifting to the competitive threat posed by other nations, particularly China, which may be doing a better job in bringing its engineering talent and money to bear on this problem.

The message that Bill Gates, venture capitalist John Doerr, Jeff Immelt CEO of GE, Ursula Burns, the CEO of Xerox, and others who met with President Barack Obama, is that the U.S. today is not leading the world in alternative energy development, and if it doesn’t triple the investments it risks losing the race to develop new technologies.  The question they raise is simple: What will happen if other countries invest more in alternative energy research than the U.S.?

Einstein’s letter represented the collective thinking of a handful of physicists who understood the science and Germany’s capabilities.  The message from Gates, Doerr and others is similar in this respect in that it also represents a much wider consensus.

Einstein's recommend actions to Roosevelt for countering the German threat are familiar to anyone involved in the energy debate: focus the scientific talent, organize the effort and increase the basic research funding going to universities and laboratories, which is exactly the recommendation Obama heard yesterday.

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