Friday, May 09, 2008

Genius R' Us

The May 12th edition of the New Yorker has the most insightful essay whose gist goes something like this: You do not have to be a genius to develop good ideas and inventions; instead, the font of ideas resides in each one of us - all one needs is appropriate conditioning in a suitable environment (the right set of people, information and relevant research may be components of that environment) for each of us to produce the next bright thing.

Ideas weren’t precious. They were everywhere, which suggested that maybe the extraordinary process that we thought was necessary for invention—genius, obsession, serendipity, epiphany—wasn’t necessary at all.

The article takes the example of Nathan Myhrvold (an entrepreneur from Microsoft) and his attempts at building a factory for purely generating ideas. Yes, a factory. A factory that produces inventions.

In 1999, when Nathan Myhrvold left Microsoft and struck out on his own, he set himself an unusual goal. He wanted to see whether the kind of insight that leads to invention could be engineered. He formed a company called Intellectual Ventures. He raised hundreds of millions of dollars. He hired the smartest people he knew. It was not a venture-capital firm. Venture capitalists fund insights—that is, they let the magical process that generates new ideas take its course, and then they jump in. Myhrvold wanted to make insights—to come up with ideas, patent them, and then license them to interested companies.

This gives hope for nitwits like me to explore further what seems like half assed ideas that sometimes spring on me during the most innocuous of times; ferry rides, going to sleep, in the shower etc. Instead of sleeping on the spark that came through, this article tells us that perseverance with the right set of people through discussions and research might result in viability. I guess that old adage is right in saying that success consists of 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration...

Some of the patents that have come up from Myhrvold’s 'invention production factory' are intriguing (see below) – and most of this seems to have been produced by a group of motivated individuals sitting across in a room armed with nothing more than pencils, sheets of papers and deep jars of salted cashews.

- Patent issued on automatic, battery-powered glasses, with a tiny video camera that reads the image off the retina and adjusts the fluid-filled lenses accordingly, up to ten times a second. - They also came up with this idea to stop hurricanes. Basically, the waves in the ocean have energy, and you use that to lower the temperature differential.
- No moving parts, proliferation-resistant nuclear reactor: The plant, as they conceived it, would produce something like one to three gigawatts of power, which is enough to serve a medium-sized city. The reactor core would be no more than several meters wide and about ten meters long. It would be enclosed in a sealed, armored box. The box would work for thirty years, without need for refueling

Also turns out that the phenomenon of simultaneous discovery – where simultaneous epiphanies happen at about the same time are more common that one thought. As the examples below suggest, one cannot stop an idea whose time and place has come. In short, if a specific set of cultural and scientific factors were impinged on appropriate groups/people, discoveries are a logical outcome (if A does not discover it, B certainly will).

- Newton and Leibniz both discovered calculus.
- Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace both discovered evolution.
- 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.
- There were four independent discoveries of sunspots, all in 1611; namely, by Galileo in Italy, Scheiner in Germany, Fabricius in Holland and Harriott in England.
- 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.
- 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 number of simultaneous discoveries means that in some sense, scientific discoveries have to be inevitable, like the fruits of a cultural and intellectual climate bestowed on people who are lucky to be ‘around’ at that point in time. This also means that given the right set of people and amassing the right set of information sources, one could generate a lot of ideas - the majority of them might be non-viable in the long run but a small number may be surprisingly viable.

Of course, there are issues with a ‘let’s get together today and brainstorm some ideas’ approach:

The outsider, not knowing what the insider knew, would make a lot of mistakes and chase down a lot of rabbit holes. Myhrvold admits that many of the ideas that come out of the invention sessions come to naught. After a session, the Ph.D.s on the staff examines each proposal closely and decides which ones are worth pursuing. They talk to outside experts; they reread the literature.

The following is the kicker:

A scientific genius is not a person who does what no one else can do; he or she is someone who does what it takes many others to do. The genius is not a unique source of insight; he is merely an efficient source of insight.

Sorry if I rambled, but this article did have an uplifting effect on me… Some of the related references below are also worth looking at.

This is a part of the Antikythera mechanism.
The Antikythera mechanism is an ancient mechanical calculator (also described as the first "mechanical computer”) designed to calculate astronomical positions. It was discovered in the Antikythera wreck off the Greek island of Antikythera, between Kythera and Crete, in 1900. Subsequent investigation, particularly in 2006, dated it to about 150-100 BC, and hypothesised that it was on board a ship that sank en route from the Greek island of Rhodes to Rome, perhaps as part of official loot. Technological artifacts of similar complexity did not reappear until a thousand years later (Source: Wikipedia and The Antikythera Mechanism Research Project)

Being in the right place at the right time: Harold W. Kuhn, Professor of Mathematical Economics, Emeritus, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey

Who discovered the expanding universe? Helge Kragh, University of Aarhus and Robert W. Smith, University of Alberta

In the Year 2054: Innumeracy Defeated, Gerd Gigerenzer, Oxford University Press

Knowledge sharing and the idea of public domain, Ilkka Tuomi, Joint Research Centre
Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, Seoul, Republic of Korea

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