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From supercolliders to robot lungs

Physicist Seamus Blackley looks back at the trajectory of his career.

What do the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) and the Xbox have in common? Seamus Blackley—if the SSC hadn't been canceled, he may never have invented the handheld video game console.

Blackley was a physics graduate student at Tufts University when Congress pulled the plug on the SSC in 1993. "I was arranging for a postdoc doing magnets at the supercollider," he says. "I was watching CNN one night with other graduate students, and we saw our future destroyed. The cancellation felt like the end of the world."

Seamus

In a panic, Blackley abandoned his partly written doctoral thesis and went job hunting. He forged a new career and has racked up successes in designing video games, inventing the Xbox, and establishing movie-style financing for games. These days he is writing books, teaming up with filmmaker James Cameron to save lives with robot lungs, and refurbishing Richard Feynman's family van.

"Strangely enough," says Blackley, "theoretical and accelerator physics prepare you for all sorts of interesting stuff. There's nothing you can't figure out, because everything is easier than, like, renormalization of quantum chromodynamics."

Physics Today's Toni Feder got the spiel from Blackley by phone.

PT: How did you and your fellow graduate students respond to the SSC's cancellation?

BLACKLEY: They got out of there. If you weren't already a postdoc, or have a path, you were in limbo. I have a lot of friends from this lost generation. We all went and did other stuff.

I think one of most important parts of physics training comes largely from J. D. Jackson's electromagnetism textbook. The great lesson of Jackson is that if you just keep working on it, you will get it—or you will be washed out of the program. There is something about knowing that if you really pay attention, and are clever, and keep working, you can do almost anything. That is incredibly important.

PT: What did you do when you left your PhD program?

BLACKLEY: I had been semirecruited for a while because I was an avid aerobatic pilot. This guy was raising venture capital to build competition airplanes, and I was going to design them. I loved flying, and it was an easy transition to think about the Navier–Stokes equations, fluid dynamics, and all that.

Being young and naive, when he said, "We'll for sure have the capital in a couple of months," I didn't know that actually translated to, "We will probably never be funded." I looked for something to tide myself over for a couple of months. I noticed an advertisement for a video game company on the bulletin board in the physics department at Harvard. I had been programming games since I had access to a computer, so I called them up and discovered it was a bunch of MIT guys. When the airplane thing didn't happen, I ended up designing and producing a whole string of video games. It was for a company called Looking Glass.

I actually wrote a flight simulator that became a number one seller. It was an aerobatic simulator and used all the physics stuff I was going to use for the real airplane.

PT: Did you plan to finish your PhD?

BLACKLEY: I got sidetracked. Every once in a while guys from Fermilab or my adviser would say, "You really need to come back to physics." One guy had started a neutron mirror company, and he invited me to dinner, took my cell phone, and put it in a microwave and killed it, trying to force me to come and do physics again. Another guy was making magnets and tried to kidnap me from my office. He would show up at my office and start taunting me for making video games. He would say I was wasting my life.

But I was writing physics codes, getting computers to draw in three dimensions in real time. You need physics for that, because things need to not interpenetrate each other, they need to behave like you would expect, otherwise these 3D worlds wouldn't make sense. So I was writing physics stunts that would make objects move around the world. It was challenging and completely distracting, which is why I kept doing it.

PT: Eventually the company you worked at was bought out, and you left. What did you do next?

BLACKLEY: We got on the radar of investors, and new management came in. I left and ended up getting recruited by DreamWorks [Studios]. This was in 1995. I showed up and was told, "Here's Steven [Spielberg], and here's your boss. That was completely bizarre. Here was this guy from the Oscars right there in your office.

PT: What did you do at DreamWorks?

BLACKLEY: I spent a couple of years working on this game, based entirely on physical simulation. It was called Trespasser. It was the first game to attempt to draw the outside world—miles of panorama using really specialized rendering techniques.

All the stuff in Trespasser works, but it didn't quite work together properly when we shipped it. It was the first time that you'd see that you could throw an object and it would go tumbling down a hill and make the right sounds. Or you could throw something at a dinosaur, and the dinosaur would react properly because it was physically simulated. It almost worked—and it has a cult following now—but it ended up being kind of a disaster.

That stuff is really common today but was crazy moon rock technology at that point. Fortunately, it impressed a couple of guys, and one of them was Bill Gates. When the disaster occurred, he offered me a job.

PT: What did you do at Microsoft?

BLACKLEY: So I went to Microsoft, figuring my career in games was totally over and feeling like I was a total failure and I had destroyed myself. I became the program manager of Windows graphics. I really just planned to hide out there.

But a little after I got there, Sony released the PlayStation 2, and they started talking about how it would replace the computer. At Microsoft, I had the hardware plans, the road map, for all the people who were going to make graphics hardware for the next Windows. I was looking at the plans, and I thought, "Bullshit! The PC is going to crush you, Sony." I got all hot under the collar.

PT: So that's how the Xbox was born?

BLACKLEY: Pretty much. I said, "We can beat them if we make just one single specification for a machine." I wrote the proposal overnight. Next morning, I got my friends together. I ended up being the ringleader of an outspoken minority at Microsoft. I got in front of Bill Gates and said, "You need to build this hardware console." So in reality, the cancellation of the supercollider and the failure of Trespasser directly resulted in the existence of the Xbox console. We released the Xbox in 2001, in November.

PT: Why did you leave Microsoft?

BLACKLEY: I stayed through 2003. But I wanted to get back to building games. I ended up starting a company to finance video games. Then I was recruited to go and do the same thing at Creative Artists Agency [CAA]. I was running a division whose goal was to fund video games and represent game designers in the same way Hollywood agencies represent film directors—with the goal of getting them money to make games that were normally considered too risky.

It was a crazy time. At one point, something like 80% of the top 20 games in the world were negotiated by my group. It could not have been a more different business or lifestyle or world than I could have imagined sitting at a terminal, deep in the bowels of CDF [Collider Detector at Fermilab], wearing a radiation badge and a hard hat.

There was a moment when Lisa Randall from Harvard visited my office at CAA. I had a framed picture on my wall with the top quark event. She started laughing and took a picture of it and said, "You are the only person in Hollywood with a collider event on their wall."

PT: When did your CAA stint end?

BLACKLEY: That gets a bit dicey. I stayed there so long because people there depended on me. I was the guy who could call up and scream at the suits when things were not going right. That is a wonderful thing to have, but a less wonderful thing to be. I have a book agent who does that for me. So I was that guy, and I had to figure out how to spin that down so I could do something else—and eventually I got the opportunity to do creative stuff again.

PT: What type of creative stuff?

BLACKLEY: I started a company with the original Atari game designers to make new games. And I started writing books. One is historical fiction, and the other is called The Entropy of Awesome and applies statistical mechanics to social trends. Like, why is it that the band you love, when they become popular, suddenly sucks? The book uses the history of the derivation of statistical mechanics to hopefully get the reader over any fears of math. It's a story about people, and people figuring things out.

Blackley at the wheel of Richard Feynman's 1975 Dodge Tradesman Maxivan. CREDIT: Emi Joy

Blackley at the wheel of Richard Feynman's 1975 Dodge Tradesman Maxivan. CREDIT: Emi Joy

PT: What is your venture with filmmaker James Cameron?

BLACKLEY: I can't be too specific. But I have started up a physics lab, employing physicists, engineers, and chemists to work on the problem of eradicating death from tobacco. I am unintentionally one of the biggest patent holders on electronic cigarettes. How weird is that? I have never even smoked.

PT: Wait. What do you mean "unintentionally"?

BLACKLEY: I never expected to enter this area. Jim [Cameron]'s brother John is one of my best friends. He stopped smoking because he picked up an electronic cigarette. And then Jim and John were like, here's a technological solution to people dying. You can think of a lot of ways to try to change the world and start charitable foundations and all that. But there are few opportunities where you can do something with technology that can directly save people's lives.

I agreed to help Jim and John with technology and prototyping and to figure out the problem of making electronic cigarettes' vaporization of nicotine safe. During the course of that, we ended up having all these patents. It's become more of a full-time thing now.

We are going after this not from the standpoint of turning a quick buck but really from the standpoint of human health.

I'm sorry to be a tease about details, but we are trying to get the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] to regulate e-cigarettes for what they are. Big tobacco is a very influential lobby, and they are trying to get the e-cigarettes essentially killed. There needs to be standardization and control manufacturing. We have turned this thing on its head recently. I wish I could tell you more, but it's too soon. Stay tuned. I think there will be an announcement from the FDA in the coming months.

PT: So what does your lab do?

BLACKLEY: It's a prototyping lab. We think of ideas, see if they work, try to make them manufacturable, and then decide where to manufacture them.

For smoking, we've made a vape bot. It's a human lung simulator that analyzes for contaminants. Plug in a vape bot, and it tells you what you are breathing out or measures contaminants in a room.

PT: Is it all e-cigarettes?

BLACKLEY: No. When you are in Pasadena and you hire scientists, people come to you with the most interesting problems. We have been lucky to find a lot of work, mostly on things where basic physics properties can be exploited using modern electronics to do something, or to make a device that seemed impossible. We do mainly electronic cigarette stuff, but the other stuff helps with costs and keeps our minds nimble and agile. You meet smart guys, and you are reminded of the great maxim: Engineering is a team sport and the opponent is physics.

PT: You are fixing up Richard Feynman's van. How did you get into that?

BLACKLEY: I have all these vintage arcade games that I restore. I also have an affinity for old cars. My ride today was a 1971 ex-military Land Rover that I restored. It looks like a time warp, and it's the number one most popular field-trip car for my son's school.

Anyway, I've always been a huge devotee of Feynman. And I have a group of physics guys that I hang out with. I was talking with Michael Shermer [science historian and writer and founder of the Skeptics Society] about my Feynman worship issues, and he said, "You should meet Ralph." [Ralph Leighton is the son of Robert Leighton, a colleague of Feynman's.] I knew about the van, and Shermer said it was somewhere in a book warehouse. It belongs to Ralph, and I took it upon myself to restore the van.

PT: What's the status?

BLACKLEY: It's under way. When Michelle [Feynman] came, it was really emotional. She told how she went camping in the van with her dad. "And there are the hooks over the driver's seat." I didn't know what the hooks were for, but that's where she would put a hammock.

There are a lot of shops around that do restoration of expensive vehicles. The guy who was doing an old Lamborghini looked at Feynman's 1974 Dodge van and wondered, "Why would you restore this?" And then I tell the story of Feynman and the Manhattan Project, and suddenly everyone wants to do it for free. It's a great project.

The goal is to get it to the Smithsonian, where it needs to be, with a holographic animation of Richard Feynman sitting in the driver's seat.

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