By TOM O'LAUGHLIN
"Where are you calling from?" she asked.
"Oh, that place is a national treasure."
This woman, then director of the University of California, San Diego Supercomputer Center, supplied details for a detail deficient magazine piece I had in work — two campuses (UCSD and UIUC), twice survivors of national competitions, forming a global networking partnership available to scientists across the country and eventually around the world. Or how a computational grid structure might be aligned to unravel a mixture of scientific puzzlements from the Big Bang and AIDS to a chaotic and fibrillating heart, rational drug therapy, pollution free energy production, nanotechnology, better climate and earthquake predictors and too many lessor "bangs" to count.
That was a decade ago, and the beat goes on. During a 2004 visit, Bill Gates announced he hires more computer science kids off this campus than any other in the country. Quoting a venture capitalist, "within the STEM grouping, not four schools can match up with this one." An About.com College Admissions web page report on SAT math scores among U.S. public universities ranks UIUC No. 1.
God may have invented the farmer, but a physicist invented radar and saved Britain from almost certain death by German air assault. A mathematician would later calculate better ways to track down and sink Nazi U-boats at 10 times the rate of admiralty imposed methods, sparing Allied merchant mariners incalculable losses.
So who can blame Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for plotting a Champaign-to-Chicago technology transfer?
Encouraging healthy scientific exchange within the academy makes such good sense. The worry, it seems to me, is the Chicago body politic. Think of a better way to burnish an image endlessly soiled by decades of corruption, failing schools and record murder rates. Its ultimate form as UI Labs may be unknown, but questions posed on these editorial pages and elsewhere give pause. Subjecting this priceless place to Chicago management oversight is worrisome. Springfield won't or can't pay its bills; Chicago can't keep thugs off the street without a National Guard, all nicely camouflaged under a priceless city skyline.
When the Brits were in trouble they put a few physicists to work and the remorseless mathematician. The Manhattan Project found Oppenheimer, Fermi, Teller and more, nerds all, because our survival was at stake.
Big ideas and survival often go hand-in-hand. I'm sticking with the nerds, maybe an accountant or two.
Tom O'Laughlin is a retired published alumnus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and occasional contributor to these and other pages. He is a co-founder of the Academy on Capitalism & Limited Government, now a 501(c)3 organization situated within the UI Foundation. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.