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Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries

4.01  ·  Rating details ·  6,385 ratings  ·  548 reviews
What do James Bond and Lipitor have in common? What can we learn about human nature and world history from a glass of water?

In Loonshots, physicist and entrepreneur Safi Bahcall reveals a surprising new way of thinking about the mysteries of group behavior that challenges everything we thought we knew about nurturing radical breakthroughs.

Drawing on the science of phase tr
Hardcover, 368 pages
Published March 19th 2019 by St. Martin's Press
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Average rating 4.01  · 
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May 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
I guess this is the new "disruption" book (even though he articulates the differences quite convincingly). Bahcall posits a theory of loonshots using a few emblamatic examples (actually the same ones everyone uses). This is sort of my fundamental problem with these sorts of books--they cherrypick data and then try to come up with grand theories based on a few successes. It's not super rigorous or scientific. This one gets extra points though because there are a lot of interesting tangents and fu ...more
Heidi The Reader
Jul 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, business
"New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war we can create fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life." — Franklin Delano Roosevelt pg 257

Safi Bahcall has applied a physics-based approach to understanding innovations and creativity in group settings. Through the careful study of a bunch of historical examples, he has discovered ways leaders can structure their businesse
Mar 25, 2020 rated it it was ok
I’ll be controversial and go against the reviews written by Siddhartha Mukherjee and Daniel Kahneman, two authors whom I respect tremendously, who extol Safi Bahcall’s Loonshots on the front cover of the book.

While I did learn some interesting stories regarding the development of drugs, companies, inventions and other innovations, this book felt like it was everywhere and nowhere. It felt to me like the book lacked a strong focus, and was more of a loose collection of random anecdotes that the a
Peter Tillman
Jun 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
A cool and very readable account of technical history, innovation, and project management. I liked the author’s breezy, conversational style. He opens with Vannevar Bush just before WW2, starting a predecessor to DARPA, which wasn’t a big favorite of the prewar US military. But he had FDR’s support (via Harry Hopkins). The first significant deployment was microwave radar — the British had longwave radar since the 1930s, and that was a big help in winning the Battle of Britain. But microwaves had ...more
Feb 24, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2019
Loonshots is a thought-provoking blend of history, physics, and business which seeks to explain group decision-making about "loonshots". I am a social scientist so the idea of thinking about group behavior through the lens of phase transitions (think ice to water or water to ice) was fascinating to me. The real-world examples ranging from WWII to cancer research were interesting and I found the author's personal stories most compelling of all. ...more
Brad Lyerla
Aug 01, 2019 rated it liked it
Great anecdotes. Decently well written. Little scientific rigor. The friend who gave me my copy said, “you can read a chapter or two and you’ll get the idea.” Cannot disagree.
Oct 15, 2020 rated it liked it
Enjoyed the anecdotes and stories, but some felt a bit contrived or stretched to fit the described framework
Feb 22, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: science, business
You would imagine that the first time someone presented the idea of using a beam to detect ships and airplanes, or a drug to reduce cholesterol, or a drug to kill tumors by choking their blood supply, there would be wild jubilation welcoming such a world-shaking breakthrough.
Aaaand you would be wrong. The folks who came up with such well-duh-obviously useful innovations as radar, statins and anti-angiogenesis drugs were rejected, and again, and again, for between 12 and 32 years.

Loonshots are “
May 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
One might be forgiven for nursing a genuine assumption that the most famous “Bush” surname belongs to one of two men, both of whom happened to be the Presidents of the United States of America at different intervals. Safi Bahcall, a second-generation physicist (the son of two astrophysicists) and a biotech entrepreneur might also have harboured a similar notion until the day when the Chairman of a project group constituting the then-President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Tec ...more
Apr 08, 2020 rated it liked it
Safi Bahcall's Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries is glossy non-fiction about loonshots, which refers to a "neglected project, widely dismissed, its champion written off as unhinged." Given that the point of the book is to create loonshot nurseries, I view this definition as self-defeating.

I basically understand loonshots as big swings whose benefit is counter intuitive but which pay off in the long run. Loonshots can be products or t
Natalia Garcia-Moreno Caraza
Jan 09, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: businessy
There exists a term well known to physicists that expounds on the possibility of coexistence between two phases. It occurs when a comparative behavior of a set of particles is balanced out by the behavior of a separate set of particles, thus allowing both to coexist in harmony. Bahcall and the sciences define this as "dynamic equilibrium". The essence of dynamic equilibrium is used throughout the book as a means to get the reader to grasp the scientific concepts to then be able to comprehend the ...more
Apr 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
a dynamite book. brilliantly written. good ideas. safi bahcall is a great story teller, and these tales are well worth telling.
"Hemingway wrote that 'the dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.' He called it his Theory of Omission. The power of beautiful prose comes from what you leave out. In science, it's the same. The power of a beautiful model comes from what you choose to omit."

"We want to design our teams, companies, and nations to nurture loonshots—in a way that maintains the delicate balance with our franchises—so that we avoid ending up like the Qianlong emperor. Tho
Nikhil Saha
Apr 30, 2021 rated it really liked it
While this was my first audiobook, my submission is this book should be read, NOT listened to. It demands your undivided attention.

Loonshots are ideas that may seem crazy in status quo- but if nurtured well, could lead to big discoveries. But how do you build the right environment/structure/system that nurtures and not dismisses loonshots- that is what this book is about - accompanied with some brilliant examples!

The book focuses on managing the fine balance between existing franchises and loons
May 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
1. New ideas are fragile and require tremendous amount of protection all the way from the top.
2. World War 2: The German U-boats were sinking Allies ships. Radar saved the day, letting pilots find them in all weather. However the military did not like Radar, at least in its original form. Vannevar Bush got the support of President Roosevelt and Radar helped killed U-boat and made allied bombs 7 times more potent by exploding around the wanted German targets.
3. Juan Tripp founded Pan Am, made f
Ben Gigone
Feb 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
Some interesting concepts. Unique perspective tying business, science, and history together. Nice break from the traditional entrepreneurship books!
May 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Was skeptical with the bombastic title at first, but this book shines as it recounts many notable inventions across industries and the multiple failures that preceded their eventual success.
Dan Connors
Jun 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2019-books
A very fascinating read. The opening story about the invention of radar and how it won World War 2, one which I had not heard before, was worth the read alone.
The author goes into detail about how great advances in technology, art or technology are made and how we can nurture them better. The advice is:

1- Separate the creators from the franchise and let them have some freedom. Discourage politics and encourage collaboration.
2- Create dynamic equilibrium between artists and soldiers so that commu
Jun 10, 2019 rated it liked it
What I love about Loonshots is how Bachall makes success seem more tangible. He doesn’t settle for a fluffy concept like culture where the amount of good culture isn’t actually measurable. He forms the magic number and theorizes ways to increase it.

What I didn’t like was when he introduced his formula without showing tangible examples of companies that have increased it and the results in numbers that followed. He merely presents an example of a company that has exhibit a good or bad quality an
Laura Noggle
Apr 30, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2020, history, nonfiction
Interesting ... but, as can be expected by the title, hard to make it feel like a cohesive whole rather than a bunch of super random examples.

Reminded me of several of Malcolm Gladwell's books—he also has the same issue of lacking cohesiveness, although I'd say I enjoy his books more.

Not bad, not great. Solid middle of the road.
Ben Freeberg
Jan 31, 2021 rated it it was ok
There were a few interesting anecdotes about Polaroid, PanAm and drugs that were interesting to learn about. Yet, the overall message of the book could have been explained much more concisely.

If you want to encourage innovation in your company or your own life, first, don’t underestimate how important soft rewards are. Real, game-changing innovation isn't a light switch that is turned on and everyone immediately sees the impact. It will take a lot of time and work to truly create something nove
Arathi Mohan
Dec 25, 2020 rated it really liked it
This book explores the structure of teams that enables them to innovate in crazy ways. The author points out that there is a lot of literature regarding the links between culture and innovation and not enough has been said about the structure of such teams. Starting off with the simple yet powerful example of water-ice and phase transitions, the book moves through several examples in history where teams that started out small became titans of their respective industries - some became wrapped up ...more
May 15, 2021 rated it really liked it
Thoroughly interesting, Loonshots captures stories of success and failure featuring several prominent names that are household names because of their products.

What I liked most about this book is the way it was concise and structured. Safi Bahcall focused on 3 important tenets and further broke them down into 3 more, concisely explaining each of them in 15-20 pages without beating about the bush. This made each section an interesting read, almost like a business case study.

The only downside (an
May 03, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a great book.
I thought I had read a lot about innovation, but Safi taught me a few new things about it in Loonshots. In particular, all the cases studies are excellent.
Of special note is the chapter about Dunbar number and its implication for the quality of innovation in a company. Safi even derives empirically an innovation equation from which he infers the “non-political condition”. The rationale behind the equation is actually quite compelling and innovative. Fascinating!
Aug 05, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting stories and light reading to illustrate an idea that could be told in half as many pages. The takeaways are good but it starts to get repetitive towards the end. Good read.
Sep 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2019
“Loonshot: a neglected project widely dismissed, its champion written off as unhinged.”

Loonshots are fragile despite their brilliance. Brilliant ideas or projects do not survive just because they are excellent or unique. Sometimes they are ignored for minor or reckless reasons.

Safi Bahcall makes a case for protecting loonshots. In some cases, a change in the structure it's all that's needed. In other cases, changes both in the culture and in the structure are necessary. Based on a series of fa
Mar 11, 2020 rated it liked it
Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries (2019) by Safi Bahcall is a curious book that describes how various long shots were rejected and then had a big impact. Bahcall has a PhD in physics and he worked for McKinsey. He has also founded biotech companies.

In the book various successful loonshots are described and the systems that were set up to develop these breakthroughs are outlined. The book has the usual problem with these books, only s
Sebastian Gebski
Nov 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
There are very few types of books that p*ss me off more than success stories of outliers, but presented as a reproducible acts (in a form of "framework" of some sort). Usually the actual understanding of success factors is shallow, so the only reason to read such books is to catch some amusing details that are not known to the general public.

Fortunately - "Loonshots" is not such a book.
I mean: there's still plenty of case studies - more or less explored before, but there's more. And the book doe
Chia Evers
Mar 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Full disclosure—I did some of the research for Loonshots, so I know the book (and the author) quite well. That said, it's a fascinating mix of history, science, technology, and organizational management (and never did I think to use the words "fascinating" and "organizational management" in the same sentence), written in a conversational style that makes complex ideas accessible, without oversimplifying. ...more
Mark Jr.
May 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audio, 2020, library-book
Don’t be so loony looking for the loonshot innovation that you forget to tend to the franchise.

Don’t let the franchise go sclerotic and nip loonshots in their precious little buds.

The basic metaphor of phase separation was useful.

One of the best of these business books. I liked the deep dives into WWII and other historical events. Not as given to oracular deliverance of platitudes.
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Safi R. Bahcall is an American physicist, technologist, business executive, and author.

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24 likes · 9 comments
“As teams and companies grow larger, the stakes in outcome decrease while the perks of rank increase. When the two cross, the system snaps. Incentives begin encouraging behavior no one wants. Those same groups—with the same people—begin rejecting loonshots.” 3 likes
“People may think of Endo and Folkman as great inventors, but arguably their greatest skill was investigating failure. They learned to separate False Fails from true fails.” 2 likes
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