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The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA Is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs

3.56  ·  Rating details ·  389 ratings  ·  57 reviews
The first-ever inside look at DARPAthe Defense Advanced Research Projects Agencythe maverick and controversial group whose futuristic work has had amazing civilian and military applications, from the Internet to GPS to driverless cars

America's greatest idea factory isn't Bell Labs, Silicon Valley, or MIT's Media Lab. It's the secretive, Pentagon-led agency known as DARPA.
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published October 20th 2009 by Smithsonian (first published 2009)
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G. Branden
Nov 15, 2009 rated it did not like it
Recommended to G. Branden by: NPR
Shallow and uncritical.

Goodreads's prompt for review text includes the language "what I learned from this book"; my answer to that is "not nearly as much as I'd hoped".

This title is mostly gee-whiz science writing with nearly all of the content that would be interesting to a scientist or engineer elided and replaced with biographical profiles of DARPA program managers and directors. For variety, he includes you-are-there stories of how he cleverly obtained entré to DARPA principals--entirely on
Meg - A Bookish Affair
Jan 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2016, non-fiction, science
3.5 stars. "The Department of Mad Scientists" is the story about DARPA, which is an arm of the Department of Defense. DARPA has existed for a long time and has been sort of the research and development arm of the American military. Although it's part of DOD, a lot of the experiments and research and development that the group has done has helped to create some of the biggest technological advances the world has seen in the past few decades. Some of their projects have included the Internet and ...more
Sarah Sammis
Jul 06, 2010 rated it liked it
I love to browse the new shelves of nonfiction books at my local library. One recent title that caught my attention because of it's goofy title was The Department of Mad Scientists by Michael Belfiore.

The book covers many of the recent advances by the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, some which have made their way into civilian applications and others that are perhaps on the horizon. There are chapters on artificial limbs, the internet, GPS and driverless cars.

The chapter that made me
Nov 12, 2011 rated it did not like it
A book that SHOULD be a lot more interesting than it actually is, it's best passages concern the founding of the agency, its tumultuous early history and its role in the Information revolution. It quickly devolves, however, into a catalog of flashy demos, and features some strangely egocentric extended passages by the author (I'm so sorry it was difficult to contact the Darpa public relations office. Being a writer sounds hard.) Finally, while tele-surgery, artificial limbs and ramjets are ...more
Dec 29, 2009 marked it as to-read
Recommended to Richard by: New York Times
Read the New York Times article: The Body Electric.
Dec 30, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nook-format
I've always been aware of some of the DARPA history just from being aware of the beginnings of the ARPANET (now known as the Internet) and I knew they were into a lot of other interesting projects, but I have come away from this book with a lot more respect for the organization. Respect may be understating it, I think I'm in awe of how the federal government can manage to create something so amazing, and under the auspices of the Department of Defense no less. "DARPA is a national treasure".

Aug 27, 2010 rated it it was ok
The topic was excellent and overdue. The treatment, I thought was rather sophomoric and spent time on superficial aspects. Written by a Wired magazine journalist, it is about the same quality of writing - a quick flight over a State, but never enough to really see the State, much less interact with the State understand what it really has and is.
Aug 06, 2015 rated it really liked it
The author had previously written "Rocketeers", about the roots and rise of the commercial rocket industry. The discovery that DARPA was a major customer for one of these companies (XCOR) led him to research resulting in "The Department of Mad Scientists". Besides the obvious, the book covers Belfiore's strategies and struggles to gain access to DARPA personnel for interviews -- as well as his eventual partial success. I use the word "partial" because many of DARPA's projects require Top Secret ...more
Jan 28, 2018 rated it liked it
If you wish you see some conspiracy development in this book, you would be disappointed. This book is talking about how DARPA was established same time as NASA and it has became a department where they are not only focus on Space programs, overall GPS, internet, medical robots such as Davinci, artificial limbs, Xcor (not SpaceX), voice recognition to type out as text, AI development, autopilot cars....etc.
The last chapter focus on future energy and its main purpose is the be able to get rid of
Mar 31, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: bio, science
So this is my assessment of this book The department of mad scientists by Michael Belfiore according to my 7 criteria:
1. Related to practice - 5 stars
2. It prevails important - 4 stars
3. I agree with the read - 5 stars
4. not difficult to read (as for non English native) - 4 stars
5. too long and boring story or every sentence is interesting - 2 stars
6. Learning opportunity - 3 stars
7. Dry and uninspired style of writing - Smooth style with humouristic and fun parts - 3 stars

Total 3.71 stars
Joann Nhan noi
Jun 20, 2018 rated it liked it
Interesting vignettes about the incubation of key technologies that have manifested its impact on society today. I had interest in the computing technologies, not so much the biological or environmental ones. You can read each chapter separately. Thank goodness for the DARPA think tank, staying competitive in technology development for the same of technology where private industry does it for profit. I hope DARPA decimates the government waste going into defense.
David Meyer
Sep 05, 2019 rated it liked it
This feels like a very good concept that wasn't allowed to come to fruition. I knew very little about DARPA and am glad to have read the book, if only to learn slightly more. Unfortunately, it felt throughout the book that the author was given a lot less information than would have been needed to truly make the book memorable. This is the downside on attempting to write a book about a secret government program.
May 29, 2019 rated it did not like it
Take 100 pages of worth while content and spread it over 300. The best parts are the history of DARPA, scramjets, and alternative energy. Otherwise, it just is a slow moving, boring book that doesn't really tell you much.

Long story short - One of the most boring non fiction books about the most interesting agency.
An interesting and enjoyable listen. I found a few parts of it dated and cringeworthy (such as the glowing description of the benefits of some of the AI advancements), and some a bit frustrating (whatever happened to that $3/gallon biofuel?) Still, it was nice to hear how the agency operates.
Britt Allgood
Interesting read especially if you are into science. Some of the technology is dated but the back story is good.
Nov 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This was a great research book for my novel. Ill be using some if the personalities for my fictional characters. Well done!! ...more
Jan 25, 2010 rated it really liked it
A well-told story of a little known government agency that has had and is likely to continue to have an important impact on the world and how we live. I think many of us are aware that DARPA was responsible for bringing the Internet into being, but they are doing so much more.

I grieved when Bell Labs was sold with Lucent to the French firm Alcatel. I've been frustrated in my dealings on behalf start-ups with IBM's Watson Labs, with their bureaucracy and "Not invented here" attitude. It was
Jun 12, 2010 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone
I selected this book based on the sub-title ("How DARPA is Remaking Our World..."), not because I had read the author's previous book, "Rocketeers". In general it was well-written and researched. I am not sure if it is because Belfiore writes mostly for shorter media (blogs, articles, and so on), but I found the book to be a bit "breezy" and a quick read: not quite as "meaty" as I would have hoped for.

But, the subject matter (i.e. the projects he reports on and the organization itself) are both
Feb 10, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: mondo-spybot, science
Two stars, and not because it is badly written, but because it was obviously written as blatant propaganda, a "recruitment tool" in the words of the DARPA head. Like all things bellicose and nationalistic, the DARPA functions as a primary beneficiary and functionary of "American exceptionalism." Yes, they are at the cutting edge of science, but science pinned to perversity as a means of better fighting the next war (not, of course, preventing the next war, but assuring that in any outcome, the ...more
Tobin Elliott
Jul 16, 2016 rated it liked it
This is a frustrating book.

On one hand, it talks about some of the coolest innovations coming down the pipe from an agency that's made its reputation on cool innovations, such as GPS and the internet. I found myself excited as hell as the author walked us through--at a very high, undetailed level--things like artificial limbs, on-site operating robots, self-driving cars, and fossil fuel replacements, to name a few. It's fascinating to find out someone is turning this science fiction stuff into
Jan 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
An inside look into DARPA, specifically following some of the agencies more successful projects. The book discusses the origins of DARPA - basically after WWII, there was a lot of power grabbing to see who would develop America's space program. The forerunner as DARPA temporarily took on this challenge. One of the reasons it was able to find the day of light was that it was specifically structured as a government research agency leveraging the free market, which appealed to Eisenhower. After ...more
Theresa Liao
Sep 05, 2011 rated it it was ok
While I enjoyed the beginning of the book when the author talked about the past projects done by DARPA, the rest of the book did not seem exactly coherent. While I understand the nature of projects in research and industry, the authors introduced too many personnels and the story was lost (I spent most of the time trying to remember who does what project). Some of the projects mentioned were also not exactly ahead of the curve anymore. As for the idea of DARPA itself, it is troubling to see that ...more
Aug 18, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: books-2010
This book was definitely a geeky pleasure for me. I read it and just enjoyed hearing about all these crazy technologies that were being developed, which was awesome. I was particularly excited to read about the autonomous car program, because for most of my five years at Stanford, I walked past those autonomous cars sitting outside the Mechanical Engineering Research Laboratory everyday (some of these cars are now being worked on at Google) (also, it makes the grad students "driving" the cars ...more
Troy Blackford
May 08, 2014 rated it really liked it
This was an interesting and rare look at DARPA, the governmental arm where research leads to new discoveries. They are really secretive, so this examination of some of their recent, unclassified projects is a rare thing. We get to learn about biomechanical prosthetic technology for the injured, automated medical treatment, self-driving cars, and multiple-times-faster-than-the-speed-of-sound scramjets. In between the cracks of these stories, we learn about the history of the DARPA organization. ...more
Feb 22, 2013 rated it liked it
A good read on the true history of DARPA and introduces some very interesting people and projects. It makes one appreciate just how unlikely it's establishment was, and therefore just how much of a fortunate 'accident' the world-changing results of its work have been.

However, I felt this could have been a much better book if it actually delved deeper into the science and technologies. Perhaps showing the authors bias (a journalist), every time the narrative came close to getting into fascinating
May 04, 2011 rated it liked it
Very intriguing portrait of the beginning of NASA, the internet, Cold War arms build up and more.

Would I recommend this to a friend?

For sure. If you like to read Wired Magazine or Engadget on the web you'll likely dig this. Very cool in terms of history of the space program in US and how the space race led to huge government investment in technology research leading to among other things, the Internet as we know it today! Chapters on artificial limbs blew me away also. The nice thing about
Kristin Lieber
Jul 03, 2012 rated it liked it
The story of DARPA, a defense agency created out of the space race, tries to keep the USA at technologies cutting edge. This book is a collection of what feel like long essays about different aspects and people of DARPA. What bothered me about this book was a lack of critique of spending and programs. Every program is grand and for the greater good. The research continues mutually assured destruction. DARPA researches a weapon, someone develops a defense, DARPA develops a defense, someone ...more
Jul 03, 2012 rated it liked it
The story of DARPA, a defense agency created out of the space race, tries to keep the USA at technologies cutting edge. This book is a collection of what feel like long essays about different aspects and people of DARPA. What bothered me about this book was a lack of critique of spending and programs. Every program is grand and for the greater good. The research continues mutually assured destruction. DARPA researches a weapon, someone develops a defense, DARPA develops a defense, someone ...more
Nov 15, 2010 rated it it was ok
Of course, there are a lot of acronyms in this book - so many that they're hard to remember even after they're written out. Plus a lot of people to keep straight...The way that DARPA is run is interesting. I wouldn't know if the management style makes it better at what it does than other organizations are, but according to this book, it has a lot of accomplishments. I think those accomplishments could have been gone through at less length, and an organization chart for DARPA would have been ...more
Jan 07, 2010 is currently reading it
I will update my review when I am done, but this book is really, really fascinating. It is about the history and projects done at DARPA. This is a little known government agency in the defense department where scientists and engineers can come do very futuristic projects with no red tape. It has been very eye opening to see just how much of our modern technology has come out of this department. It is well written and very engaging. I highly recommend it.
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Michael Belfiore is an author, journalist, and speaker on the innovations shaping our world. He has written about game-changing technologies for the New York Times, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Smithsonian, Air & Space, Financial Times, and other outlets. He is an International Aerospace Journalist of the Year Award finalist.

Michael has appeared as a commentator on the Fox Business

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