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What I learned from Arnold

The late visionary entrepreneur taught him that in a world made of information, if you say it, it is no dream
Arnold reflected in one of his panels
Arnold reflected in one of his panels

Over the last five months, I had six long meetings, usually over coffee or lunch, with Arnold Goldman. The last one was a month ago. Last week, Arnold died.

Arnold reflected in one of his panels
Arnold reflected in one of his panels

Our relationship was an unlikely one. Arnold was almost twenty years my senior, one of Israel’s most accomplished entrepreneurs. Incredibly, he founded or co-founded six companies. His first was Lexitron, founded in 1969, which in 1978 became the first company to produce a word processor with a full screen.

I remember going to the “computer room” at college to type with little green letters on a screen where I could magically write a paper without a typewriter or whiteout. It swallowed floppy disks —  black eight inches squares with a whole in the middle. Each could hold a massive 1 MB, which is 1/64,000 of the middling memory on my aging iPhone 6.

After selling Lexitron to Raytheon in 1978, Arnold founded Luz, an iconic company in the new field of solar energy. Using Israeli-developed technology, Luz built solar thermal fields that by 1990 generated 90 percent of the world’s solar energy. The company closed when California pulled the tax incentives that made such fields economical.

In 2006, Arnold re-founded Luz, this time under the catchier name Brightsource. The company built what is still the largest solar thermal field in the world, also in California. I remember Arnold telling me back then that their biggest headache was trying to protect an endangered species of desert tortoise. Though Brightsource relocated the tortoises at great expense, environmentalists were still worried that the tortoises would get “stressed.”

More recently, I was very interested in Alma, a company that Arnold co-founded with his daughter Tamar to design new cities without cars. Arnold would also tell me about his latest company, Mada, which was working on utility-scale solar storage using liquefied air. These were occasional conversations; we had never collaborated on anything in an intense way.

About six months ago, he gave me a call. For a couple of hours, we sat over coffee in our shared Jerusalem neighborhood and he told me about a technology so incredible that if it were not Arnold sitting opposite me I would have smiled politely and moved on. But this was Arnold, with a deep background in physics, mathematics, engineering and most important, developing new technologies.

Arnold told me that he had been contacted by a friend who oversaw technology for a big oil company. The friend told him that he had left his senior job for a spot in small new company that was developing utility-scale wireless energy transmission — at any distance.

It was immediately obvious that if this could be done it would be one of the most transformative inventions in history. Imagine if energy could be produced wherever is most efficient — wind farms in the north of Norway, solar fields in the Sahara Desert, geothermal energy in Iceland — and transmitted wirelessly to anywhere in the world. Natural gas would no longer need to be liquefied and shipped; countries with almost no grid or power stations would not need to build either.

Africa from space, at night
Africa from space, at night

The literally dark continent of Africa — as seen from space — would suddenly have all the power it desperately needs, at low cost. The price of power-intensive desalinated water would drop, solving the global water crisis and making deserts green. The shift to renewable energy would be dramatically accelerated and could provide almost all of humanity’s power needs.

This miracle could be achieved, Arnold told me, by transmitting electric power with ground waves that could be “broadcast” around the earth — much like a radio tower broadcasts radio waves in all directions. Such ground waves could go much further than radio waves, even over the curvature of the earth.

He had seen the technology work on a small scale. In our last meeting, he said with certainty that it would change the world.

As our initial conversation went on, it became clear that Arnold was not just letting me know about this; he wanted me to partner with him to build yet another company to help fulfill the tremendous potential of this new technology.

As my mind raced about being a part of such a global game-changer, I didn’t ask the obvious question: why did he turn to me, an author who knows little about technology and has zero experience building companies? I could not answer this question and for some reason was embarrassed to ask. To Arnold it seemed too normal to explain.

Eventually, I started to realize that it had to do with another topic of our conversations; his life’s work on a new way of looking at the world that would essentially supplant the holy grail of physics: a theory of the universe that underlies and unites the quantum mechanics of the atomic level with Einstein’s theories that explain everything else, from black holes to nuclear explosions.

Arnold believed that we do not just discover things that exist, rather, we create the world around us with words. Just as biology turned out to be an information technology with the discovery of DNA, the universe itself was
made of information, not atoms, energy, and space. This was very hard for me to understand; I still don’t. One example he gave, however, resonated with me.

He said that Intel’s Gordon Moore did not discover his eponymous “law” that computer chips would double in speed and drop in price every 2 years or so. Intel made that law happen through tremendous investments in chip factories before they even knew how they would accomplish such doublings.

In a sense, declaring the law made it happen.

Arnold attributed his success to his application of Moore’s Law thinking to other technologies, such as solar thermal. If Brightsource decided that it would indefinitely increase solar energy efficiency at a certain rate, that would happen.

So why did Arnold choose me? Because he saw that the story of Start-Up Nation had created something with words. This is not to say that we made up this story, but in telling this story, we created an image of Israel that didn’t exist, and that image had real world impact.

I learned from Arnold that words have power, not just in the day-to-day sense that we know. The stories we tell about the world around can be a real part of creating that world.

Towards the end, I knew that Arnold suffered pain and disability from his brutal cancer treatments, but he did not let up on his meetings with me — or his grueling travel schedule. This was a time not to stop, but to press ahead even faster on his writing, his current and potential companies, and building a legacy for his large family.

To Arnold, family and future were one. Arnold did not have a chance to finish writing his theory of the universe. He did manage to complete two books in his planned series. He presented each book to a different grandchild. They wouldn’t understand the gift, of course, but these books would dangle into their futures, waiting to be deciphered and used as guidebooks to creating that future.

I learned from Arnold that stories can shape the world because maybe, the world is made of information, not atoms. I learned that living in the future can be seamlessly linked to building it. I learned that if our purpose is strong enough, it will drive us so long as we live. And I learned that we can be a part of our children’s and grandchildren’s futures if we pass on a bit of our purpose to them.

About the Author
Saul Singer is the co-author, with Dan Senor, of 'Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle.'
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