Where Original Ideas Come From
Revolutions are seldom solo efforts. Isaac Newton was the greatest scientist of his age and not one known for his false modesty, but even he had to admit, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Thomas Kuhn made a related point in his classic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. He argued that precedence in science is somewhat arbitrary—a matter of perspective rather than fact—because new discoveries are rarely tied to the work of just one person or team.
Yet, while very few ideas are truly original, there are exceptions. Sometimes an important new idea seems to have no precursor or precedent, but springs forth whole from a single mind and completely alters our perception of how the world works. Although these are rare, they have a lot to teach us about how to become more creative ourselves.
The Idea That Launched Western Civilization
In the history of the world, very few ideas rival the impact Aristotle’s logic. In terms of longevity, only Euclid’s geometry is in the same league. While there was healthy philosophical discussion before Aristotle, it was he that took it out of the realm of mysticism by creating a system to judge the internal consistency of particular statements.
At the core of Aristotelian logic is the syllogism, which is made up of propositions that consist of two terms (a subject and a predicate). If the propositions in the syllogism are true, then the argument is true. Much of our information technology today is based on Aristotle’s original idea.
Amazingly, Aristotle’s logic survived nearly 2000 years—until the late 19th century fully intact—when some flaws emerged having to do with a paradox in set theory. The effort to resolve these problems led to Gödel’s incompleteness theorems and eventually to the Turing machine that launched the computer age.
A Theory Of Information
During World War II, Claude Shannon spent his time developing and breaking codes for the military (and struck up a brief collaboration with Alan Turing). He was known to his colleagues as quirky, quiet and brilliant, but no one was quite prepared for his 1948 paper, A Mathematical Theory of Communication, which created the field of information theory.
The basic idea was that information is separate from content. Shannon proved that information can be broken down into quantifiable units he called binary digits (or bits for short), which represented two alternative possibilities, much like a coin toss. Add up the coin tosses and you arrive at the total amount of information required to communicate an idea or instruction.
In retrospect, it seems like a relatively simple concept, but its impact has been positively enormous. It touches everything we do in the digital age, from storing files on a computer drive to talking on a mobile phone to compressing videos. Every time you watch a video on Youtube, you have Shannon to thank for it.
Engineering At Nano-Scale
When Richard Feynman stepped up to the podium to address the American Physical Society in 1959, he had already gained a reputation as both an accomplished scientist and an iconoclast (during his tenure at the the Manhattan project, he became famous for his safecracking and pranks).
Yet few could have predicted that, in less than an hour, he would create a completely new field—now known as nanotechnology—before their very eyes. Starting from a simple suggestion about shrinking an encyclopedia to fit on the head of a pin, he extrapolated to molecular machines and radical new medical therapies.
While today nanotechnology is a thriving, multibillion dollar industry, back then even a very simple computer took up an entire room—and a large room at that. Feynman singlehandedly imagined not only the possibility of engineering on a molecular scale, but even some of the techniques to make it possible, many of which are still in use today.
Feynman soon went on to other things and played little part in the further development of the field he had conceived, but his little talk remains one of the most dazzling bursts of creative thought in recorded history.
The Common Thread
Thomas Kuhn, who I mentioned above, became famous for his concept of paradigm shifts. He pointed out that even great scientists get stuck in a particular way of thinking about things, even when their theories no longer match established facts. That’s why it is usually an outsider—or a new generation—that tends to break new ground.
Truly original ideas rarely come from diligently working within one field, but rather from synthesizing across domains. And therein lies the secret to how groundbreaking new ideas like logic, information theory and nanotechnology come about. Aristotle, Shannon and Feynman were stars in their fields, but also ventured outside them.
Aristotle reportedly wrote over 200 works, across fields as diverse as biology, physics, ethics, politics and aesthetics. Outside of mathematics, Shannon was an inveterate tinkerer, successful investor and even developed systems to win at the gambling tables. Feynman, was an early computing pioneer and published an important paper on virology.
All of this poses an important questions for how we run our businesses: Why do we expect bright young graduates to enter a particular field, spend a few years learning to master it and continually repeat that experience over an entire career? Is groundbreaking innovation even possible if we spend our time perfecting our ability to do rote tasks?
In order to create new paths, we first must venture outside of those that we have already travelled.