Former Head of HRL Pens Series of Techno-Thrillers

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Art Chester reads excerpts from his new novel at Bank of Books.

HRL Laboratories (formerly Hughes Research Laboratories), with its sleek white buildings overlooking the Pacific Ocean from a ridge high above the Civic Center area, has always been something of a mystery to Malibu residents. Nobody seems to know anyone who works there, and no one really knows what kind of research they do. 

Enter Art Chester, who holds a doctorate in theoretical physics from Caltech and is recognized as a pioneer in laser technology whose research experience includes the highest of high-tech projects. Chester was president of HRL from 1988 to 2002 after holding several VP-level positions and lived in Malibu for decades. 

In retirement, Chester has written a series of books that take place in a “fictitious” research facility in Malibu named Halstead Aeronautics Lab, which offer a peek at the real HRL.

The official launch of Chester’s third techno-thriller, “Death by Arbitrage or Live Low Die High,” took place at Bank of Books in Malibu last Saturday with a book signing and Q&A for a crowd of fans, friends and co-workers, who showed a lot of fascination with HRL and its founder, Howard Hughes. 

“The most appropriate place for a book signing is, of course, Malibu, California, where most of the events in all three books occur,” Chester said.

Each book features Evan Olsson, a scientist and amateur detective who works at the research lab, along with his artificial intelligence friend Al.

“Al evolves and gets more personality and autonomy throughout the books,” Chester pointed out. “In a sense, Al is Evans’s conscience and his critic.” 

The latest book takes Evan from Malibu to Venice, Stanford and San Francisco in his efforts to solve a financial crime, delves into his personal relationships with two different women and draws from Chester’s real-life experiences at HRL. 

“In the book, the layout of the building is much like HRL, with offices facing the ocean and the labs out back,” Chester said. “A lot of the behaviors and personalities are real, and I try to keep the technology genuine. This is not science fiction.

“I want readers, I want to entertain and I want to help readers understand this [high-tech research lab] world that’s not very honestly portrayed [by most media],” Chester said in an interview, explaining some of the reasons he decided to write. 

“My website is purposely aimed at non-scientists,” Chester explained. “When you’re CEO, you have to communicate with a lot of people that aren’t scientists, and I think what I’m doing is a continuation of what I did as an aerospace executive. It’s a way of communicating but making it enjoyable; and bringing technical and non-technical people together with a better understanding of each other.”

The first two books in the series, “Death by Probability” and “Death by Tech” (under pen name Urno Barthel), received positive reviews from Kirkus Reviews, a literary trade publication. “Death by Arbitrage” was awarded a star, an honor that indicates “exceptional merit” and is only given to two percent of independently published books. Kirkus Reviews called it “an extremely clever thriller that dazzles on every level.”

“It means I’m getting better,” Chester smiled.

When asked why HRL keeps such a low profile in the community, Chester said it originally came from founder Howard Hughes.

“Hughes was a recluse in his later years and experienced the isolation that came from being extremely wealthy and an introvert,” Chester shared. “The combination of his personality plus government restrictions, product liability issues and politics led [management] to conclude that publicity was not a good thing. If you sell satellites, missiles and radar to the government, you gain nothing by having that appear in the newspapers.”

The company concluded that the more it stayed out of the public “limelight,” the better off it would be.

“You can attract unwelcome attention,” Chester explained. “I can’t tell you how many crackpot visitors have come to the lab.”

In describing the work environment at HRL, Chester said, “Science is an insular environment, like a small town. It’s generally friendly and supportive, and the pressure to be cooperative and collaborative is extremely high. Most projects are so complex that you have to rely on other people to get anything done.”

Chester explained that teamwork is required.

“Science today is far beyond what any one person can do in a home lab, like Thomas Edison or Benjamin Franklin,” he said. “It can take legions of people to advance the state of the art. [There are exceptions], but in general, Newton had it right — we stand on the shoulders of our predecessors.”