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Department of Mad Scientists, The Hardcover – October 20, 2009

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Editorial Reviews


If you want to know who really invented the Internet, or how brain waves can control robotic limbs, or how smart cars will become brilliant, this is your book. A must-read for those interested in invention in the modern age (Joe Pappalardo, Popular Mechanics)

“A fascinating introduction to a veritable pantheon of geek gods who quietly shaped the face of modern technology.” (Daniel H. Wilson, roboticist and author of How to Survive a Robot Uprising)

“An entertaining and information rich account of a small, efficient government agency that often turned 20th century sci-fi into 21st century technical reality. Belfiore will inspire young readers of a scientific bent to flood DARPA with their resumes.” (Robert Wallace, author of SPYCRAFT: The Secret History of the CIA's Spytechs from Communism to al-Qaeda)

“An inspiring book about a crucial government agency (DARPA) with a driving spirit to do the impossible and to do it fast. We all need to read this book.” (John Seely Brown, Former Chief Scientist of Xerox and Director of its Palo Alto ResearchCenter (PARC) John Seely Brown, Former Chief Scientist of Xerox and Director of its Palo Alto ResearchCenter (PARC))

[DARPA’s] history has never been told at the level of detail and with such mastery as in this book by Michael Belfiore (Leonard Kleinrock, Distinguished Professor of Computer Science, UCLA, and Internet pioneer)

“An expansive look at one of the most important agencies not only in the Department of Defense, but in American history.” (Nathan Hughes, Military Analyst, STRATFOR)

PRAISE FOR ROCKETEERS:“Belfiore excels at painting the world of NewSpace.” (New Scientist)

“A riveting, you-are-there account of how this ragtag collection of innovative thinkers, brave pilots, and bold visionaries is--right now--launching one of the most exciting new industries in history. Belfiore’s eloquent writing and exhaustive reporting really bring this mysterious, secretive world to life.” (Popular Science)

“That this story is still unfolding makes it especially exciting to read. These men are still in their workshops, tinkering their way into orbit.” (Forbes)

“The commerical space race is heating up so fast you need a cheat sheet to keep track of all the billionaires and gamblers vying to be the first private entrepreneur to blast paying customers into orbit. [Belfiore] does a stellar job introducing an intriguing cast of characters.” (Wired)

“The privitization of space travel is an essential step toward realizing our cosmic destiny. In his engaging, highly readable ROCKETEERS, Michael Belfiore tells the fascinating story of the entrepreneurs who have already made it happen.” (Buzz Aldrin)

From the Back Cover

The first-ever inside look at DARPA—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—the 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. Founded by Eisenhower in response to Sputnik and the Soviet space program, DARPA mixes military officers with sneaker-wearing scientists, seeking paradigm-shifting ideas in varied fields—from energy, robotics, and rockets to peopleless operating rooms, driverless cars, and planes that can fly halfway around the world in just hours. DARPA gave birth to the Internet, GPS, and mind-controlled robotic arms. Its geniuses define future technology for the military and the rest of us.

Michael Belfiore was given unprecedented access to write this first-ever popular account of DARPA. Visiting research sites across the country, he watched scientists in action and talked to the creative, fearlessly ambitious visionaries working for and with DARPA. Much of DARPA's work is classified, and this book is full of material that has barely been reported in the general media. In fact, DARPA estimates that only 2 percent of Americans know much of anything about the agency. This fascinating read demonstrates that DARPA isn't so much frightening as it is inspiring—it is our future.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 295 pages
  • Publisher: Smithsonia; First Edition edition (October 20, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0061577936
  • ISBN-13: 978-0061577932
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,056,777 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Michael's book Rocketeers is the first to chronicle the birth of the commercial space age. His The Department of Mad Scientists is the first to go behind the scenes at DARPA, the Pentagon agency that gave us the Internet and many other breakthrough technologies that have changed our lives for the better.

Michael has been excited about space travel and future technology since he discovered Robert Heinlein's Rocket Ship Galileo in his local public library at the age of six. In addition to writing books, he reports on what's next for major magazines and on his blog at and speaks to audiences around North America.

He lives in New York state's Hudson River Valley with his wife and two daughters.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

54 of 60 people found the following review helpful By tom abeles VINE VOICE on January 2, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
First, this is a "people" book more concerned with the personalities that created DARPA than what has come through the doors of DARPA that has contributed to the technological advancements for both the department of defense and the public-at-large. He seems concerned that the reader not only understand the individuals but how clever he has been in being able to gain access to those personalities who know what is happening behind the walls.

Second, it is clear that Belfiore gained considerable knowledge about rockets from his previous book. He is more comfortable in writing about this area of DARPA rather than about the game-changing world of computers and artificial intelligence or the larger DARPA agenda. He frankly admits his lack of understanding and seems willing to let that lack of knowledge ride in exchange for defaulting to the personalities working in these arenas.

He points out that much of his information comes from DARPA contractors who aren't veiled in the same "secrecy" or opaqueness of DARPA itself. Yet he has not taken the time to explore the breadth of this contracted research but limits himself more to the historic, the visible and his personal zone of comfort.

What Belfiore hits by accident and dismisses in order to retain his narrow focus is that while DARPA is "edgy" it is only the tip of a very large iceberg of military research by each of the various branches, some of which are of a similar nature to what DARPA is doing. One would think, from this book, that DARPA represents where the defense industry's research and development's edge is today.
It's not sufficiently technologically detailed, and does not significantly clarify what is currently going on behind the closed doors. It is more a personal tale of travel through the corridors of history and personalities than the essence of what makes DARPA a force on the frontiers of research today and for the future. It should find itself abridged in Readers Digest.
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Richard C. Mains on November 11, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Michael Belfiore, author of the trail-blazing insider's view of the "NewSpace" industry Rocketeers: How a Visionary Band of Business Leaders, Engineers, and Pilots is Boldly Privatizing Space and its extraordinary and occasionally self-funded entrepreneurs, has now produced something similar for the hidden world of DARPA. I've read many articles on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, but this author walks with us down these paths to see how these extraordinary projects come to life, the amazing characters who pursue them, and their powerful outcomes in terms of societal benefits. Belfiore has a special talent for explaining technology development in the context of a compelling tale that is wonderful. He makes these technical advances not only accessible, but truly fascinating and that works like a black hole pulling the reader into another world. If you want to understand how almost impossibly advanced technologies are actually being developed behind the scenes, read this book.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Lowell Thing on November 27, 2009
Format: Hardcover
A number of years ago for an online encyclopedia, I wrote a definition for something rather mysterious called "DARPA" (and then another definition for its earlier name, "ARPA"). Most people familiar with IT history know that this U.S. government agency was the instigator of what we have come to know as the Internet. But few of us have known much else. Now, with Michael Belfiore's new book, I was able to learn just how important the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is. Since the agency's projects are typically secret, the author shares with us the challenges he faced in gaining access to the information the agency was willing to reveal. Because the projects are farmed out and scattered geographically, the book also reads somewhat like a science travelog. And this is what we learn: even though their primary mission is to serve the U.S. military, DARPA and the people they hire are responsible for perhaps a third of the technological breakthroughs that change our world. Belfiore takes us into the laboratories and workshops where artificial arms are being developed with microdevices implanted in existing muscle that communicate wirelessly with chips in the prosthetic, where robots are being built that may do life-saving operations on the wounded as they are being transported to hospitals, and where vehicles with visual systems can move without a human driver. From DARPA came the stealth aircraft that changed politics as well as warfare; today, DARPA is working on hypersonic aircraft that can travel at many times the speed of sound, perhaps someday available for civilian transport.Read more ›
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By S. Sedlacek on March 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I had high hopes to learn about a lot of cool stuff that DARPA is working on. Perhaps that was a misguided expectation given that most of their stuff is Top Secret. The book turns out to be very boring - I can barely get through it. Way too much discussion of who's running the agency and not enough about what they are doing - but that would be a difficult (perhaps impossible) book to write. The title led me to believe that their projects would be discussed but they really aren't.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on February 23, 2010
Format: Hardcover
It is easy to form the opinion nowadays that government bureaucracies become entrenched, that keeping power once it is gained is the way to play the game, and that red tape keeps agencies from doing their jobs. It might be true in some parts of government, perhaps many. Thus it is all the more important to examine the parts of government for which it is not true. There's one that has produced world-changing benefits, and it is the subject of the engrossing book _The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs_ (Harper) by Michael Belfiore, which is not so much a summary of the remarkable things the agency has accomplished but a look at just what it is doing now. Much of the work is secret; after all, DARPA is the _Defense_ Advanced Research Projects Agency, even though its projects have plenty of civilian overlap. Some of what Belfiore has to tell us is how difficult it was sometimes to get admission to see projects in action or to get the DARPA eggheads to chat. He is an accomplished writer on technological themes, though, whose previous book _Rocketeers_ was about entrepreneurs and private space travel, and he got access. The resulting report is an invigorating look at tomorrow's technologies being born.

DARPA didn't originally have that "Defense" D in front of it (that came in 1972). ARPA was born from the shock that came from the 1957 launch of Sputnik. ARPANET was originally a network of a small number of computers at universities and research labs which had to share data about seismograph readings quickly, and electronic transfer was much faster than sending tracings in the mail.
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