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Ideas are in the air

by PhilipJ on 18 August 2008

Back in May, Malcolm Gladwell wrote In the air, a piece in the New Yorker about how many big ideas seem inevitable. While we (rightly) attribute the moniker “genius” to many of the people who have invented or discovered important things in history, Gladwell argues that others would have almost surely come up with the same (or similar) ideas in short order, what science historians call “multiples”. A number of examples are tossed around, based on a list compiled in 1922 by William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas:

Newton and Leibniz both discovered calculus. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace both discovered evolution. Three mathematicians “invented” decimal fractions. Oxygen was discovered by Joseph Priestley, in Wiltshire, in 1774, and by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, in Uppsala, a year earlier. Color photography was invented at the same time by Charles Cros and by Louis Ducos du Hauron, in France. Logarithms were invented by John Napier and Henry Briggs in Britain, and by Joost Burgi in Switzerland. […] The law of the conservation of energy, so significant in science and philosophy, was formulated four times independently in 1847, by Joule, Thomson, Colding, and Helmholz. They had been anticipated by Robert Mayer in 1842. There seem to have been at least six different inventors of the thermometer and no less than nine claimants of the invention of the telescope. Typewriting machines were invented simultaneously in England and in America by several individuals in these countries. The steamboat is claimed as the “exclusive” discovery of Fulton, Jouffroy, Rumsey, Stevens, and Symmington.

The idea, then, is that big ideas are “in the air”, or that these “multiples” exist because the collective thinking is being steered in particular directions by previous discoveries and advances, letting multiple people working on the same problem independently find similar solutions. This is actually a fairly obvious idea (how many of us in science are worried about being “scooped” in some way or another?), but it isn’t usually the way we think about the history of science. As Gladwell points out, “[g]ood ideas are out there for anyone with the wit and the will to find them.”

This idea of “multiples” was also used by sociologist Robert K. Merton to classify what genius actually meant. His belief was that a genius was invariably part of many different “multiples”, far more than an average scientist or inventor, and that the genius was no different than you or I except in their efficiency in generating good ideas. Merton’s example was Lord Kelvin, where, after analysis of Kelvin’s 600-odd scientific correspondences, concluded 32 multiples:

These 32 multiples involved an aggregate of 30 other scientists, some, like Stokes, Green, Helmholtz, Cavendish, Clausius, Poincaré, Rayleigh, themselves men of undeniable genius, others, like Hankel, Pfaff, Homer Lane, Varley, and Lamé, being men of talent, no doubt, but still not of the highest order… For the hypothesis that each of these discoveries was destined to find expression, even if the genius of Kelvin had not been obtained, there is the best of traditional proof: each was in fact made by others.

Gladwell relates all of this back to an extremely unique company called Intellectual Ventures, whose goal is to gather together many smart people and brainstorm ideas (in “invention sessions”) with the intention of following up on them themselves (they are apparently working on a new kind of nuclear reactor, and have more nuclear engineers than GE), or licensing their ideas to other companies. They’ve been generating interesting ideas at an amazing pace (some 500 patents are granted each year, and they have a backlog of 3000 waiting to go), bypassing the necessity for a single genius by increasing the number of Hankels, or Pfaffs, or Varleys, working together. These are still very clever people—in their ranks are a chemist from Stanford, doctors, lawyers, career scientists from Livermore who were trained by Edward Teller, etc—but the point is that none of them are Kelvin-style geniuses.

In my mind, this is also the way academic science works. It is increasingly rare to find lone geniuses working on their big ideas, and instead to find teams, often spanning multiple institutions or countries, doing the real interesting science. To make important contributions does not require that you be a Kelvin or a Feynman (they solve things the same way we do anyway) but to surround yourself with other clever people, and to have the wit and will to follow interesting problems.

  1. Kurt L. Hanson    3106 days ago    #

    I would split the pie three, four, even to ten equal slices if I felt doing so was necessary to get something accomplished. But if it isn’t necessary to do so, why? Best to think to keep the whole pie for yourself …, no?

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