Nonlinear Optics

The last class I needed to take from graduate school was “Nonlinear Optics” taught by Nobel Prize winner Stephen Harris. I struggled. I was a decent scientist/engineer but not elite. And beyond that, nonlinear optics was really freaking hard. Not only was the math complex, but it was nearly impossible for me to picture the concepts in my mind. “Linear” or Physical Optics was much easier – you could picture everyday use cases like the laser and why the sky is blue. Nonlinear optics was much different. It was too abstract.

I won’t find the source but many smart thinkers like Nassim Taleb and Daniel Kahneman basically make the point that the nonlinear stuff is hard for humans to imagine. Humans like stories; we like cause-and-effect, we are told. That’s linear thinking – “if/then/that” statements. Technology changes are nonlinear. They move in step functions. It’s impossible to predict or picture for most humans.

The really great technologists have the ability to think nonlinearly. They have bigger imaginations. They can understand these nonlinear steps. Some great examples are Andy Grove, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg. They didn’t necessarily predict where the world was going but they knew that the world was changing. Steve Jobs is probably the penultimate. He understood better than others that human needs and wants changed much more slowly than the pace of technology change. And he could impedance match the technology shifts to human needs. In my opinion, that’s why it’s so important to have a technologist as the leader of a technology company. Not only will s/he have moral and actual authority, but s/he can understand the technology shifts while most think conventionally. It’s not only a matter of courage but also foresight.

This is one of the hardest things for me to viscerally understand. As an investor, it’s tempting to think in terms of probabilities instead of expected value. You ask, “What’s the business model?” while forgetting that all the technology outliers at one point had “no business model” and that if the business model were obvious, somebody would already be doing it.