The 7 Greatest Ideas in History
We all have ideas all the time. Some are good, but rather ordinary, (like spontaneously buying flowers for your wife on the way home), some are bad (like buying her a knife set for her birthday) and others, like Google’s PageRank are unquestionably great.
Just a few stand out above all the rest. They change the course of history and affect the lives of millions who aren’t even aware of them. Amazingly, they are often the work of a single person.
Those ideas are truly great and seven really stand out. To make my selection, I applied three criteria: Longevity (i.e. they survive a long time without being amended or surpassed in any significant way), impact (i.e. they greatly affected the lives and work of others) and authorship (i.e. they can be traced to one person). Here’s my list, see what you think.
In terms of longevity, only Euclid’s geometry (which doesn’t make the list because of fuzzy authorship) can rival Aristotle’s logic. Any time we say someone is being “illogical” or that an argument is valid, we are referring to Aristotle. Amazingly, it sprung forth from his mind seemingly without precursor or precedent and lasted for two millennia.
As late as 1781, Immanuel Kant wrote:
That logic has advanced in this sure course, even from the earliest times, is apparent from the fact that, since Aristotle, it has been unable to advance a step and, thus, to all appearance has reached its completion.
That’s pretty amazing, two thousand years and nobody had been able to find any flaws or improve on the idea in any significant way. At the core of Aristotelian logic is the syllogism, which is made up of propositions which consist of two terms (a subject and a predicate). If the propositions in the syllogism are true, then the argument is true.
There are, of course, more complexities as you delve deeper, but what gives logic so much power is the simple concept that we can judge the validity of statements by their structure alone, even when stripped of their content. If you follow the rules of logic, every statement you make will be valid (i.e. internally consistent).
Today, two thousand years later, Aristotle’s simple idea stands at the core of the information technology that runs our modern world.
Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems
Alas, all good things must come to an end and by the late 19th century logic’s seams began to show. People like Frege and Cantor were among the first to try to patch up the system, but Russell’s paradox showed that those solutions too, were flawed. Then David Hilbert came up with the idea of logic as a closed system and logic lived to fight another day.
He created an incredibly innovative method called Gödel numbering to prove that all systems are either incomplete or inconsistent. No matter how they are constructed, they will eventually end up with a statement that is both true and not true by the rules of the system.
It’s a seemingly small idea that has enormous consequences. It means that every logical system will fail and every computer program will crash, it’s just a matter of time. You can never fix the system, because systems themselves are necessarily broken.
Gödel isn’t very well known, but he was clearly a genius of historic proportions. He is interesting in another light as well, the amazing story of the friendship he struck up with Einstein. You can read more about it in Palle Yourgrau’s excellent book, A World Without Time.
In 1665, the great plague swept through Great Britain, eventually wiping out over 100,000 people, including 20% of London’s population. As a safety measure, Cambridge university closed its doors in order to prevent further spread of the disease. It remained shut for two years
One of the students, 23 year-old Isaac Newton returned having filled notebooks with the ideas that would eventually be published as Principia Mathematica. In it, he laid out the principles of his laws of motion, gravity and calculus. In two short years, he laid out the basic structures which formed the basis for modern science and engineering.
Centuries later, other men have built on the foundation that Newton created. The buildings we live and work in as well as the bridges that we cross, owe a large debt to that extended summer vacation and stand as a testament to the power of one man’s mind.
Darwin’s Natural Selection
It’s unfortunate that Darwin is so controversial in some circles these days and that over half of Americans say they don’t believe in evolution.
In reality, whatever your religious beliefs, if you go to a modern hospital, take antibiotics, use the term meme, send things by UPS or even shop at Wal-Mart, you are, in some sense, showing an implicit belief in Darwin’s idea.
Many people think that Darwin came up with the idea of evolution, which he didn’t. What he really did was formulate a simple algorithmic process that explains an amazing array of natural phenomena:
If entities are subject to varying conditions;
If resources are limited, resulting in a struggle for survival;
If characteristics of individuals are passed to future generations;
Then a process will occur in which entities adapt to become more fit for the environment in which they need to survive.
In over 150 years, no one has found a flaw in the argument (although creationists argue that the first proposition doesn’t hold, thereby nullifying the argument’s force with respect to evolution). Without Darwin’s theory, we couldn’t do modern epidemiology or create the genetic algorithms that make logistics systems run efficiently or lots of other things.
Very few ideas have been as powerful or been applied so widely to so many good ends.
Einstein’s Miracle Year
Much like Newton, Einstein brilliance sprung forth in a single burst of creativity. In 1905, now known as his miracle year, the unknown patent clerk unleashed 4 papers of major significance and two of those ideas changed the course of science.
The first was the special theory of relativity, which I have described before, but the basic concept is that time and space are relative measures, not absolute quantities. It sounds wacky, but GPS is corrected for his equations, so every time you use your car’s navigation system you are inadvertently proving it all over again.
He later added an appending note to his relativity paper when he realized that one of the ramifications was mass-energy equivalence, which he expressed in his famous formula:
The second paper of historical consequence was on the photoelectric effect, where he theorized that light was made up of discrete packets of energy he called quanta (although now known as photons). Ironically, the idea led to the quantum mechanics, which he could never accept and spent the rest of his life trying to disprove.
Good thing he didn’t. Most of modern electronics is based on that paper.
Shannon’s Information Theory
He spent most of the war years working on cryptography for the military, which is where he probably got the idea for his 1948 paper, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, which created the field of information theory (interesting, that was the same year his colleagues invented the transistor).
The basic idea was that information can be broken down into quantifiable entities he called binary digits (or bits for short), which represented two alternative possibilities, much like a coin toss. Add up all of the coin tosses, and you arrive at the total amount of information that you need to communicate.
Not since Aristotle has such an important theory sprung forth from one man, seemingly out of thin air, which emerged full and complete and that had such enormous historical impact. It touches everything we do in the digital age, from storing files on a disc to talking on a mobile phone to compressing videos so that we can watch them on YouTube.
Unlike many other geniuses of historical significance, Shannon wasn’t all about theory, he liked putting ideas into practice. Most notably, applying his formidable mathematical skills in the stock market, where he made a fortune.
Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web
When Tim Berners-Lee was working as a systems administrator at CERN in the 80’s, he noticed a problem. Physicists would come from all of the world, spend months peering into the mysteries of the universe, but could not communicate what they found with each other in an effective manner.
The problem wasn’t the hardware, the internet had been around for a while by then. Rather, the difficulty lay in that everybody was using different systems and could not easily display their information on a platform where everybody could find and access it. He saw the need for a electronic filing system where ideas could be universally displayed.
So in November of 1989, he created the three protocols that make up the modern Web, HTTP, URL and HTML. He continues to embellish the original idea at the World Wide Web Consortium, but those three pillars remain at the center of not only his creation, but allow us to so easily access all the great ideas that came before it.
As Isaac Newton once said, we truly do stand on the shoulders of giants.