When is a breakthrough not a breakthrough?

One of the most overused words in the advanced-technology writer’s lexicon is the word “breakthrough,” at least in my view.

Nov 1st, 2006
Th Jbairstow

I would have to say that, in my view, the Intel/UCSB development is indeed a “sudden advance” and is probably the key to the subsequent commercial development of integrated optics on a silicon chip.

One of the most overused words in the advanced-technology writer’s lexicon is the word “breakthrough,” at least in my view. And, evidently, according to Lee Gomes, a respected technology columnist (“Portals”) for The Wall Street Journal. In a column in late September, Gomes castigated microprocessor giant Intel for using the term “breakthrough” in its press release on the development of the hybrid laser, a collaborative effort with the University of California at Santa Barbara (see Laser Focus World, October, p.13). However, I vehemently disagree.

While conceding that Intel is doing significant and important work in its laser laboratories, Gomes rightly claims that much development has to be done before we will ever see production versions of these devices. That is also undoubtedly true. What Gomes perhaps does not understand, or is unwilling to concede, is that the bonding of a layer of light-emitting indium phosphide to a series of silicon waveguides is exceedingly difficult. Thus, this joint development is seen by many industry observers and leading researchers as a breakthrough of no small order.

Let me pause here for a moment to examine the everyday meanings of the word in a dictionary. A “break through” is a military term referring to breaking through enemy lines or defenses such as the walls of a castle. More recently breakthrough (no space, no hyphen) has come to mean, as my battered but still trustworthy copy of the 10th edition of Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says, “a sudden advance in knowledge or technique.” The word can also mean, says Webster’s, “the act of breaking through an obstruction” or “a person’s first notable success.”

I would have to say that, in my view, the Intel/UCSB development is indeed a “sudden advance” and is probably the key to the subsequent commercial development of integrated optics on a silicon chip. I’m not alone in coming to this “breakthrough” conclusion. Writing in The New York Times, technology reporter John Markoff said, “The breakthrough was achieved by bonding a layer of light-emitting indium phosphide onto the surface of a standard silicon chip etched with special channels that act as light waveguides.”

Now, Gomes would prefer to use something “less arresting,” such as “research advance.” Well, how about “a key step,” or “useful development?” I don’t think so. I’m sticking with “breakthrough,” and offer a tip of the editorial fedora to the researchers who broke through the very real barrier to producing IC’s with laser integration. As John Bowers, head of the UCSB team that developed the bonding technique, said, “Photonics has been a low-volume cottage industry. Everything will change and laser communications will be everywhere, including fiber to the home.”

Well, John, I’ve got news for you. Courtesy of local telephone behemoth Verizon, I already have a fiber link (FiOS) to my house. Of course, Verizon just had to stick a big ugly junction box outside my home to make the transition to copper before connecting to my home’s Ethernet, so I’m using a mere fraction of the fiber’s massive capabilities.

But now there’s light at the end of the tunnel (please excuse the play on words). I can see the day coming when I will have an all-fiber, light-wave network in my home for less than the cost of DSL or cable. Now that would be my very own personal breakthrough. And this final link should not cost any more than today’s slothful copper-wire links. Not only will fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) links become widespread but also intercomputer links will be much faster, leading to the equivalent of a “supercomputer on your desk.”

Is this development a breakthrough? Sorry, Mr. Gomes, but you dropped the ball on this one.

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Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor
jnbairstow@verizon.net

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